© 2016, The Author(s).Within the field of cancer research, focus on the study of minimal residual disease (MRD) in the context of carcinoma has grown exponentially over the past several years. MRD encompasses circulating tumour cells (CTCs)—cancer cells on the move via the circulatory or lymphatic system, disseminated tumour cells (DTCs)—cancer cells which have escaped into a distant site (most studies have focused on bone marrow), and resistant cancer cells surviving therapy—be they local or distant, all of which may ultimately give rise to local relapse or overt metastasis. Initial studies simply recorded the presence and number of CTCs and DTCs; however recent advances are allowing assessment of the relationship between their persistence, patient prognosis and the biological properties of MRD, leading to a better understanding of the metastatic process. Technological developments for the isolation and analysis of circulating and disseminated tumour cells continue to emerge, creating new opportunities to monitor disease progression and perhaps alter disease outcome. This review outlines our knowledge to date on both measurement and categorisation of MRD in the form of CTCs and DTCs with respect to how this relates to cancer outcomes, and the hurdles and future of research into both CTCs and DTCs.