This year is the tenth anniversary of the publication in this journal of a model suggesting the existence of 'tumour progenitor genes'. These genes are epigenetically disrupted at the earliest stages of malignancies, even before mutations, and thus cause altered differentiation throughout tumour evolution. The past decade of discovery in cancer epigenetics has revealed a number of similarities between cancer genes and stem cell reprogramming genes, widespread mutations in epigenetic regulators, and the part played by chromatin structure in cellular plasticity in both development and cancer. In the light of these discoveries, we suggest here a framework for cancer epigenetics involving three types of genes: 'epigenetic mediators', corresponding to the tumour progenitor genes suggested earlier; 'epigenetic modifiers' of the mediators, which are frequently mutated in cancer; and 'epigenetic modulators' upstream of the modifiers, which are responsive to changes in the cellular environment and often linked to the nuclear architecture. We suggest that this classification is helpful in framing new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to cancer.