The vertebrate immune system has evolved to protect against infections that threaten survival before reproduction. Clinically manifest tumours mostly arise after the reproductive years and somatic mutations allow even otherwise antigenic tumours to evade the attention of the immune system. Moreover, the lack of immunological co-stimulatory molecules on solid tumours could result in T-cell tolerance; that is, the failure of T cells to respond. However, this may not generally apply. Here we report several important findings regarding the immune response to tumours, on the basis of studies of several tumour types. First, tumour-specific induction of protective cytotoxic T cells (CTLs) depends on sufficient tumour cells reaching secondary lymphatic organs early and for a long enough duration. Second, diffusely invading systemic tumours delete CTLs. Third, tumours that stay strictly outside secondary lymphatic organs, or that are within these organs but separated from T cells by barriers, are ignored by T cells but do not delete them. Fourth, co-stimulatory molecules on tumour cells do not influence CTL priming but enhance primed CTL responses in peripheral solid tumours. Last, cross priming of CTLs by tumour antigens, mediated by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules of antigen-presenting host cells, is inefficient and not protective. These rules of T-cell induction and maintenance not only change previous views but also rationales for anti-tumour immunotherapy.