Whether vaccines are designed to prepare the immune system for the encounter with a pathogen or with cancer, certain common challenges need to be faced, such as what antigen and what adjuvant to use, what type of immune response to generate and how to make it long lasting. Cancer, additionally, presents several unique hurdles. Cancer vaccines must overcome immune suppression exerted by the tumour, by previous therapy or by the effects of advanced age of the patient. If used for cancer prevention, vaccines must elicit effective long-term memory without the potential of causing autoimmunity. This article addresses the common and the unique challenges to cancer vaccines and the progress that has been made in meeting them. Considering how refractory cancer has been to standard therapy, efforts to achieve immune control of this disease are well justified.