Cancer may arise because the developmental programs that create the dramatic alterations in form and structure in embryonic development are potentially corrupted. The cells in our bodies retain memories of these processes and cancer can occur later in life if imperfections occur in the fidelity of these pathways. This article is particularly interested in the phenomenon of epithelial to mesenchymal transition, which occurs in embryogenesis. Also reviewed are the small molecules and pathways that are involved both in homeostasis in adult epithelium and embryogenesis in utero. There are five such pathways in particular selected for review in this article: the Wnt pathway, Hedgehog, Notch, PAR and Bone morphogenetic peptide/TGF beta. These are usually conserved throughout mammalian evolution. Though they have been arbitrarily separated in this article they are not exclusive from one another. Their pathologically altered expression is found especially frequently in childhood tumours where they may recapitulate their developmental role, and in tumours that resemble primitive precursor cells. These pathways are important for selecting cell fates, cellular rearrangements, cytological context and morphologic design in embryology as well as participating in epithelial function in adults.