Autophagy is an important homeostatic cellular recycling mechanism responsible for degrading unnecessary or dysfunctional cellular organelles and proteins in all living cells. Autophagy is particularly active during metabolic stress. In the cancer cell it fulfils a dual role, having tumor-promoting and tumor-suppressing properties. Functional autophagy prevents necrosis and inflammation, which can lead to genetic instability. On the other hand, autophagy might be important for tumor progression by providing energy through its recycling mechanism during unfavorable metabolic circumstances. A central checkpoint that negatively regulates autophagy is mTOR, and anticancer drugs inhibiting the PI3K/Akt/mTOR axis putatively stimulate autophagy. However, whether autophagy contributes to the antitumor effect of these drugs or to drug resistance is largely unknown. The antimalarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine inhibit autophagy, leading to increased cytotoxicity in combination with several anticancer drugs in preclinical models. The therapeutic clinical roles of autophagy induction and inhibition remain to be defined. To improve our understanding of autophagy in human cancers new methods for measuring autophagy in clinical samples need to be developed. This Review delineates the possible role of autophagy as a novel target for anticancer therapy.