Pyrimidine antagonists, for example, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), cytarabine (ara-C) and gemcitabine (dFdC), are widely used in chemotherapy regimes for colorectal, breast, head and neck, non-small-cell lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and leukaemias. Extensive metabolism is a prerequisite for conversion of these pyrimidine prodrugs into active compounds. Interindividual variation in the activity of metabolising enzymes can affect the extent of prodrug activation and, as a result, act on the efficacy of chemotherapy treatment. Genetic factors at least partly explain interindividual variation in antitumour efficacy and toxicity of pyrimidine antagonists. In this review, proteins relevant for the efficacy and toxicity of pyrimidine antagonists will be summarised. In addition, the role of germline polymorphisms, tumour-specific somatic mutations and protein expression levels in the metabolic pathways and clinical pharmacology of these drugs are described. Germline polymorphisms of uridine monophosphate kinase (UMPK), orotate phosphoribosyl transferase (OPRT), thymidylate synthase (TS), dihydropyrimidine dehydrogenase (DPD) and methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) and gene expression levels of OPRT, UMPK, TS, DPD, uridine phosphorylase, uridine kinase, thymidine phosphorylase, thymidine kinase, deoxyuridine triphosphate nucleotide hydrolase are discussed in relation to 5-FU efficacy. Cytidine deaminase (CDD) and 5'-nucleotidase (5NT) gene polymorphisms and CDD, 5NT, deoxycytidine kinase and MRP5 gene expression levels and their potential relation to dFdC and ara-C cytotoxicity are reviewed.