Histone deacetylases comprise a family of 18 genes, which are grouped into classes I-IV based on their homology to their respective yeast orthologues. Classes I, II, and IV consist of 11 family members, which are referred to as "classical" HDACs, whereas the 7 class III members are called sirtuins. Classical HDACs are a promising novel class of anti-cancer drug targets. First HDAC inhibitors have been evaluated in clinical trials and show activity against several cancer diseases. However, these compounds act unselectively against several or all 11 HDAC family members. As a consequence, clinical phase I trials document a wide range of side effects. Therefore, the current challenge in the field is to define the cancer relevant HDAC family member(s) in a given tumor type and to design selective inhibitors, which target cancer cells but leave out normal cells. Knockout of single HDAC family members in mice produces a variety of phenotypes ranging from early embryonic death to viable animals with only discrete alterations, indicating that potential side effects of HDAC inhibitors depend on the selectivity of the compounds. Recently, several studies have shown that certain HDAC family members are aberrantly expressed in several tumors and have non-redundant function in controlling hallmarks of cancer cells. The aim of this review is to discuss individual HDAC family members as drug targets in cancer taking into consideration their function under physiological conditions and their oncogenic potential in malignant disease.