Hematologic spread of carcinoma results in incurable metastasis; yet, the basic characteristics and travel mechanisms of cancer cells in the bloodstream are unknown. We have established a fluid phase biopsy approach that identifies circulating tumor cells (CTCs) without using surface protein-based enrichment and presents them in sufficiently high definition (HD) to satisfy diagnostic pathology image quality requirements. This 'HD-CTC' assay finds >5 HD-CTCs mL(-1) of blood in 80% of patients with metastatic prostate cancer (n = 20), in 70% of patients with metastatic breast cancer (n = 30), in 50% of patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer (n = 18), and in 0% of normal controls (n = 15). Additionally, it finds HD-CTC clusters ranging from 2 HD-CTCs to greater than 30 HD-CTCs in the majority of these cancer patients. This initial validation of an enrichment-free assay demonstrates our ability to identify significant numbers of HD-CTCs in a majority of patients with prostate, breast and pancreatic cancers.