Cancer Cells vs Normal Cells


The body is made up of approximately 37.2 trillion human cells – so you can truly appreciate how many that is, here is the number written out in full, 37,200,000,000,000 – that’s a lot of cells.

These ‘normal’ cells act as the body’s basic building blocks and possess specific characteristics that enable them to maintain correct functioning of tissues, organs, and organ systems. Normal cells:

  • control their growth using external signals, meaning they only grow and divide when required,
  • undergo programmed cell death (apoptosis) as part of normal development, to maintain tissue homeostasis, and in response to unrepairable damage,
  • ‘stick together’ by maintaining selective adhesions that they progressively adjust which ensures they remain in their intended location,
  • differentiate into specialized cells with specific functions meaning they can adopt different physical characteristics despite having the same genome.

Cancer is a complex genetic disease that is caused by specific changes to the genes in one cell or group of cells. These changes disrupt normal cell function – specifically affecting how a cell grows and divides. Cancer cells have more genetic changes compared to normal cells, however not all changes cause cancer, they may be a result of it. The genetic changes that contribute to cancer usually affect three specific types of gene; proto-oncogenes, tumor suppressor genes, and DNA repair genes.

Hallmarks of Cancer

‘Hallmarks of Cancer’ is a term used to describe the specific characteristics that distinguish cancer cells from normal cells.

Hallmarks of cancer

Figure 1: The 10 hallmarks of cancer, as defined by Douglas Hanahan and Robert A. Weinberg, 2011.

Normal Cell vs Cancer Cell – The Key Differences

Below we outline some of the key differences between cancer cells and normal cells.

Normal Cell Cancer Cell
Cell shape Uniform Irregular
Nucleus Spheroid shape, single nucleus Irregular shape, multi-nucleation common
Chromatin Fine, evenly distributed Coarse, aggregated
Nucleolus Single, inconspicuous nucleolus Multiple, enlarged nucleoli
Cytoplasm Large cytoplasmic volume Small cytoplasmic volume
Growth Controlled Uncontrolled
Maturation Mature into specialized cells Remain immature and undifferentiated
Blood supply Normal angiogenesis (occurs during development/ healing) Tumor-induced angiogenesis
Oxygen Required (for aerobic respiration) Not required (can thrive in hypoxic conditions)
Location Remain in their intended location Can spread to different locations in the body (metastasis)

How Do Cancer Cells Behave Differently from Normal Ones?
As cancer cells display unique characteristics in comparison to normal cells, researchers can take advantage of these differences when coming up with ways to combat cancer.


Normal and Cancer Cells Structure: Image Details – NCI Visuals Online. (2018). Retrieved from
Nandini, D.B. (2017) Cancer Cell Nucleus: An Insight. J Mol Biomark Diagn S2:026. doi:10.4172/2155-9929.S2-026
Papetti, M., & Herman, I. (2002). Mechanisms of normal and tumor-derived angiogenesis. American Journal Of Physiology-Cell Physiology, 282(5), C947-C970. doi: 10.1152/ajpcell.00389.2001
Eales, K., Hollinshead, K., & Tennant, D. (2016). Hypoxia and metabolic adaptation of cancer cells. Oncogenesis, 5(1), e190-e190. doi: 10.1038/oncsis.2015.50


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