Parathyroid cancer is rare, but often fatal, as preoperative identification of malignancy against the backdrop of benign parathyroid disease is challenging. Advanced genetic, laboratory and imaging techniques can help to identify parathyroid cancer. In patients with clinically suspected parathyroid cancer, malignancy of any individual lesion is established by three criteria: demonstration of metastasis, specific ultrasonographic features, and a ratio >1 for the results of third-generation:second-generation parathyroid hormone assays. Positive findings for all three criteria dictate an oncological surgical approach, as appropriate radical surgery can achieve a cure. Mutation screening pinpoints associated conditions and asymptomatic carriers. Molecular profiling of tumour cells can identify high-risk features, such as differential expression of specific micro-RNAs and proteins, and germ line mutations in CDC73, but is unsuitable for preoperative assessment owing to the potential risks associated with biopsy. A validated, histopathology-based prognostic classification can identify patients in need of close follow-up and adjuvant therapy, and should prove valuable to stratify clinical trial cohorts: low-risk patients rarely die from parathyroid cancer, even on long-term follow-up, whereas 5-year mortality in high-risk patients is around 50%. This insight has improved the approach to parathyroid cancer by enabling risk-adapted surgery and follow-up.