The importance of early diagnosis to reduce the morbidity and mortality from cancer has led to a search for new sensitive and specific tumour markers. Molecular techniques developed over the past few years allow simultaneous screening of thousands of genes, and have been applied to different cancers to identify many genes that are modulated in various cancers. Of these, attention has focused on genes coding for a family of proteins with whey-acidic-protein (WAP) motifs. Most notably, the genes coding for elafin, antileukoproteinase 1 (previously called secretory leucocyte proteinase inhibitor, SLPI), WAP four disulphide core domain protein 1 (previously called prostate stromal protein 20 kDa, PS20), and WAP four disulphide core domain protein 2 (previously called major human epididymis-specific protein E4, HE4), have been identified as candidate molecular markers for several cancers. In this review, we assess data for an association between cancer and human WAP proteins, and discuss their potential role in tumour progression. We also propose a new mechanism by which WAP proteins might have a role in carcinogenesis.