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It’s important for doctors to know what type of cancer| a person has because different types of cancer can behave very differently and respond to different treatments|.
Cancers are grouped (classified) in two ways, according to:
Most people are familiar with cancer types being described according to where the cancer first started in the body (the primary site), for example, lung cancer or breast cancer. The most common sites in which cancer develops include the:
Cancer can also be described according to the type of cell it started in. This can be just as important in how a cancer behaves and responds to treatment as the site where it started.
You may come across words such as ‘adenocarcinoma’ or ‘squamous cell carcinoma’ when reading about cancer. These are the names given to cancers to describe the type of cell the cancer started in.
Our body is made up of millions of cells. The cells, organised together, make up all of our tissues and organs. There are different types of cells to carry out different functions in the body. Some types are very common and are found in almost all the organs in our body. Other types, such as the brain cells, are very specialised and only found in one part of our body.
The main types of cells in our body are:
Cancers that start in each of these types of cells have different names.
Cancers that start in epithelial cells are called carcinomas. They are the most common type of cancer in adults and make up 80-90 out of every 100 cancers (80-90%). Most lung, breast, prostate and bowel cancers are carcinomas.
There are different types of epithelial cells:
Cancers that start in the blood or bone marrow (the tissues where white blood cells are formed to fight infection in the body) are called leukaemias|. Cancers that start in the lymphatic system (which helps the body fight infection) are called lymphomas|. Leukaemias and lymphomas are quite rare, making up fewer than 7 in 100 (7%) of cancers.
Cancers that start in connective tissue cells are called sarcomas.
Sarcomas are rare. They make up fewer than 1 in 100 (1%) of cancers.
Sarcomas are split into two main types:
Cancer can develop in other types of cells but these cancers are rare. Brain cancers| are the most common cancers in this group.
For a list of all cancer types, see our A-Z list.|
Content last reviewed: 1 October 2011
Next planned review: 2013
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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