Change in cell stiffness is a new characteristic of cancer cells that affects the way they spread. Despite several studies on architectural changes in cultured cell lines, no ex vivo mechanical analyses of cancer cells obtained from patients have been reported. Using atomic force microscopy, we report the stiffness of live metastatic cancer cells taken from the body (pleural) fluids of patients with suspected lung, breast and pancreas cancer. Within the same sample, we find that the cell stiffness of metastatic cancer cells is more than 70% softer, with a standard deviation over five times narrower, than the benign cells that line the body cavity. Different cancer types were found to display a common stiffness. Our work shows that mechanical analysis can distinguish cancerous cells from normal ones even when they show similar shapes. These results show that nanomechanical analysis correlates well with immunohistochemical testing currently used for detecting cancer.