Proteolysis occurs when proteinase activity exceeds inhibitor activity. Proteolysis is normally tightly regulated and is involved in cancer invasion and metastasis. The aim of this study was to compare proteolysis in breast and colorectal cancer. Proteinase and inhibitor expression were analysed in paired tumour and normal tissue samples from 43 breast and 24 colorectal cancer patients using substrate zymography, Western blotting and quenched fluorescence substrate hydrolysis. The expression of the latent forms of matrix metalloproteinase-2 (MMP-2), MMP-3 and MMP-9, urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA), tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase-1 (TIMP-1) and TIMP-2 expression were observed in both tumour and normal tissue samples from breast and colorectal tissue; however, expression was greater in the tumour tissue. Expression of active MMP-2 and MMP-9 and the total MMP activity were greater in tumour compared to normal samples in both tissues (P < 0.05). The expression of all proteinases and total MMP activity was greater in colorectal tissue than breast tissue samples. Breast and colorectal cancer demonstrated different proteinase profiles, however proteolysis in both tissues was greater in tumour tissue than normal tissue.