Nucleoside analogs are structurally similar antimetabolites that have a broad range of action and are clinically active in both solid tumors and hematological malignancies. Many of these agents are incorporated into DNA by polymerases during normal DNA synthesis, an action that blocks further extension of the nascent strand and causes stalling of replication forks. The molecular mechanisms that sense stalled replication forks activate cell cycle checkpoints and DNA repair processes, which may contribute to drug resistance. When replication forks are not stabilized by these molecules or when subsequent DNA repair processes are overwhelmed, apoptosis is initiated either by these same DNA damage sensors or by alternative mechanisms. Recently, strategies aimed at targeting DNA damage checkpoints or DNA repair processes have demonstrated effectiveness in sensitizing cells to nucleoside analogs, thus offering a means to elude drug resistance. In addition to their DNA synthesis-directed actions many nucleoside analogs trigger apoptosis by unique mechanisms, such as causing epigenetic modifications or by direct activation of the apoptosome. A review of the cellular and molecular responses to clinically relevant agents provides an understanding of the mechanisms that cause apoptosis and may provide rationale for the development of novel therapeutic strategies.