You are here

Rare cancers


There are over 200 different types of cancer known to medical science and of these 11 are well known and understood. Examples of major cancer types that are well known and better understood both in the medical community and the population at large include:

  • Bowel (colon) cancer.
  • Breast cancer.
  • Lung cancer.
  • Prostate cancer.
  • Skin cancer (melanoma).

Cancers outside these major types are classified as either 'rare' cancers or 'less common'. These classifications also include some sub-types of the major cancers. Despite the fact that these cancers are called 'rare', around 52,000 people in Australia are diagnosed with a rare or less common cancer every year, and 25,000 people in Australia will die from these cancers (2017 estimates from Cancer in Australia).

Rare Cancer Classification

The technical definition of 'rare' is less than 6 incidences per 100,000 people, and the definition of 'less common' is 6-12 incidences per 100,000 people.

Some types of cancer considered rare include vaginal cancer, cancer of the salivary glands, chordoma (cancer in the spine) and mesenchymal chondrosarcoma (cancer that affects cartilage tissue). However, even better-known cancer types, such as brain, liver, and pancreatic cancer as rare or less common ('RLC') cancer types.


Treatment for rare and less common cancers can be quite different from treatment approaches for common cancers. Even where the rare cancer is a sub-type of a more common cancer, the approach may need to be quite different. This is the case for example with cervical cancer, where a rare sub-type known as 'small cell cancer' is treated differently to the more common types.

Issues Affecting Rare Cancers

Some of the issues with RLC cancers are the relative lack of support for people diagnosed with them, and a lack of research on them. This makes treatment decisions more difficult as the amount of information available from clinical trials is often more limited.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials are a type of research studies that may be testing a new treatment approach or new drugs. They are the best way to develop new treatments to treat cancer, and often are comparing a new approach to current standard treatments or testing a new treatment when there is no current beneficial treatment. They also are one way of getting the newest treatment for cancer.

Cancer Australia is currently funding research into at least eight different types of RLC cancers, and has established clinical trials involving patients with brain cancer, pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer. The organisation is also funding community grants aimed at giving more support and information to sufferers of RLC cancers around Australia.

The suitability of a clinical trial for each patient depends on the cancer type and stage, prior treatments given, their other health problems, the overall potential for risks and side effects compared to potential benefits, and their preferences. If you want to know more about clinical trials in your particular circumstances, talk to you doctor or health professional.

Related Information

Clinical Trials