The ability of the immune system to effectively respond to human tumours is a matter of long-term controversy. There is an increasing body of recent evidence to support a role for the immune system in eliminating pre-clinical cancers, an old concept termed 'immunosurveillance'. 'Immunoediting' is an updated hypothesis, in which selection pressures applied by the immune response to tumours modulate tumour immunogenicity and growth. Tumour infiltration by immune cells has been shown to have powerful prognostic significance in a host of cancer types. Paradoxically, in some circumstances the immune system can promote tumour development. Cytotoxic therapies, including radiotherapy and chemotherapy, induce potentially immunogenic cell death, releasing tumour-associated antigens in the context of a 'danger' signal to the immune system. An understanding of the interaction between immune cells, tumour cells and treatment modalities will therefore guide the future combination of immunotherapy with conventional therapy to achieve optimal anti-tumour effects.