The p53 tumor suppressor protein plays a crucial role in regulating cell growth following exposure to various stress stimuli. p53 induces either growth arrest, which prevents the replication of damaged DNA, or programmed cell death (apoptosis), which is important for eliminating defective cells. Whether the cell enters growth arrest or undergoes apoptosis, depends on the final integration of incoming signals with antagonistic effects on cell growth. Many factors affect the cellular response to activated p53. These include the cell type, the oncogenic status of the cell with emphasis on the Rb/E2F balance, the extracellular growth and survival stimuli, the intensity of the stress signals, the level of p53 expression and the interaction of p53 with specific proteins. p53 is regulated both at the levels of protein stability and biochemical activities. This complex regulation is mediated by a range of viral and cellular proteins. This review discusses this intriguing complexity which affects the cell response to p53 activation.