Chromosome instability (CIN) is gaining increasing interest as a central process in cancer. CIN, either past or present, is indicated whenever tumour cells harbour an abnormal quantity of DNA, termed 'aneuploidy'. At present, the most widely used approach to detecting aneuploidy is DNA cytometry - a well-known research assay that involves staining of DNA in the nuclei of cells from a tissue sample, followed by analysis using quantitative flow cytometry or microscopic imaging. Aneuploidy in cancer tissue has been implicated as a predictor of a poor prognosis. In this Review, we have explored this hypothesis by surveying the current landscape of peer-reviewed research in which DNA cytometry has been applied in studies with disease-appropriate clinical follow up. This area of research is broad, however, and we restricted our survey to results published since 2000 relating to seven common epithelial cancers (those of the breast; endometrium, ovary, and uterine cervix; oesophagus; colon and rectum; lung; prostate; and bladder). We placed particular emphasis on results from multivariate analyses to pinpoint situations in which the prognostic value of aneuploidy as a biomarker is strong compared with that of existing indicators, such as clinical stage, histological grade, and specific molecular markers. We summarize the implications of our findings for the prognostic use of ploidy analysis in the clinic and for the theoretical understanding of the role of CIN in carcinogenesis.