PAX proteins function as transcription factors and play an essential role in organogenesis during embryonic development in regulating cell proliferation and self-renewal, resistance to apoptosis, migration of embryonic precursor cells, and the coordination of specific differentiation programs. Recent studies have also discovered a role for PAX proteins in specific stem cell or progenitor cell populations, including melanocytes, muscle, and B-cells. The normal functions of the PAX proteins, including apoptosis resistance and repression of terminal differentiation, may be subverted during the progression of a number of specific malignancies. This is supported by the fact that expression of PAX proteins is dysregulated in several different types of tumors, although the precise roles for PAX proteins in cancer are not clearly understood. An emerging hypothesis is that PAX proteins play an essential role in maintaining tissue specific stem cells by inhibiting terminal differentiation and apoptosis and that these functional characteristics may facilitate the development and progression of specific cancers. In this review, we provide a general background to the PAX protein family and focus on specific cells and tissues and the role PAX proteins play within these tissues in terms of development, mature tissue maintenance, and expression in tumors. Understanding the normal developmental pathways regulated by PAX proteins may shed light on potentially parallel pathways shared in tumors, and ultimately result in defining new molecular targets and signaling pathways for the development of novel anti-cancer therapies.