We are in an era where the potential exists for deriving comprehensive profiles of DNA alterations characterizing each form of human cancer. Such profiles would provide invaluable insight into mechanisms underlying the evolution of each tumor type and will provide molecular markers, which could radically improve cancer detection. To date, no one type of DNA change has been defined which accomplishes this purpose. Herein, by using a candidate gene approach, we show that one category of DNA alteration, aberrant methylation of gene promoter regions, can enormously contribute to the above goals. We have now analyzed a series of promoter hypermethylation changes in 12 genes (p16(INK4a), p15(INK4b), p14(ARF), p73, APC,(5) BRCA1, hMLH1, GSTP1, MGMT, CDH1, TIMP3, and DAPK), each rigorously characterized for association with abnormal gene silencing in cancer, in DNA from over 600 primary tumor samples representing 15 major tumor types. The genes play known important roles in processes encompassing tumor suppression, cell cycle regulation, apoptosis, DNA repair, and metastastic potential. A unique profile of promoter hypermethylation exists for each human cancer in which some gene changes are shared and others are cancer-type specific. The hypermethylation of the genes occurs independently to the extent that a panel of three to four markers defines an abnormality in 70-90% of each cancer type. Our results provide an unusual view of the pervasiveness of DNA alterations, in this case an epigenetic change, in human cancer and a powerful set of markers to outline the disruption of critical pathways in tumorigenesis and for derivation of sensitive molecular detection strategies for virtually every human tumor type.