Colorectal cancer arises as a result of the accumulation of genetic errors many of which affect the control of apoptosis. Effective chemoprevention strategies for colorectal cancer must rectify these genetic defects. Mutation of apc is often the initiating genetic lesion in colorectal cancers that develop along the chromosomal instability pathway. Depending on the cellular context, loss of apc activates the Wnt signalling pathway causing immediate widespread apoptosis of colorectal epithelial cells and defects in differentiation and cell migration. Only cells that are inherently resistant to apoptosis survive this initial wave of apoptosis. These surviving cells constitute the epithelial population that develop into adenomas. Two gene targets of the Wnt signalling pathway are of particular relevance to apoptosis. Although controversial, survivin may function to inhibit apoptosis. MYC has two outputs in normal cells, the induction of apoptosis and proliferation. These opposing functions work so that MYC can only induce cell proliferation in cells if apoptosis is disabled. p53 couples apoptosis to mitogenic signals and survival pathways. Under some circumstances, NF-kappaB can act as an inhibitor of apoptosis possibly through increased expression of bcl-x(L). Tumours that evolve by the microsatellite instability pathway often have mutations in the proapoptotic gene bax. Colonic adenomas express cyclo-oxygenase-2 (COX-2) and may be targets of chemoprevention before the development of malignancy. However, the recent discovery that coxibs increase the risk of serious cardiovascular events limits their use as chemopreventive agents. Nevertheless, aspirin remains a drug of great interest as it is already known to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by up to 50%. The balance of evidence shows that high vegetable fibre diets can prevent colorectal cancer, probably via the fermentation of butyrate enhancing the apoptotic response to DNA damage.