Two quite distinct neoplasia-associated karyotypic patterns are emerging. One is characterized by simple and disease-specific abnormalities, and the other is characterized by multiple and nonspecific aberrations. The former pattern is typical of most leukemias and lymphomas and of some mesenchymal tumors, but it is rare in epithelial neoplasms. The latter pattern is found in most epithelial tumor types, in several mesenchymal neoplasms, but in only a few hematologic malignancies. Primary chromosome aberrations, which are believed to be essential in establishing the neoplasm, and secondary changes, which are considered to be important in tumor progression, may be distinguished in the tumors characterized by simple and disease-specific abnormalities. Here, we propose that these aberrations are genetically and hence, most likely, functionally distinct. Primary abnormalities lead to specific gene rearrangements, whereas secondary chromosomal changes result in large-scale genomic imbalances. According to this hypothesis, there are no unbalanced primary aberrations, only secondary imbalances masquerading as primary. This proposition has a number of conceptual ramifications. First, the genetic mechanisms underlying tumor initiation and progression would seem to be totally different. Second, the elucidation of the molecular consequences of the secondary aberrations will be an arduous task, even if one were to adhere to the view that cytogenetically identified genomic imbalances may be reduced to simple gains or losses of single oncogenes or tumor suppressor genes. Third, the cytogenetic diagnosis of neoplasms will have to take into account that an unbalanced "primary" abnormality is secondary to a submicroscopic, truly primary change of major diagnostic and prognostic importance.