Reversible acetylation mediated by histone deacetylases (HDACs) influences a broad repertoire of physiological processes, many of which are aberrantly controlled in tumor cells. As HDAC inhibition prompts tumor cells to enter apoptosis, small-molecule HDAC inhibitors have been developed as a new class of mechanism-based anti-cancer agent, many of which have entered clinical trials. Although the clinical picture is evolving and the precise utility of HDAC inhibitors remains to be determined, it is noteworthy that certain tumor types undergo a favorable response, in particular hematological malignancies. Vorinostat and romidepsin have been approved for treating cutaneous T-cell lymphoma in patients with progressive, persistent or recurrent disease. Here, we discuss developments in our understanding of molecular events that underlie the anti-cancer effects of HDAC inhibitors and relate this information to the emerging clinical picture for the application of these inhibitors in the treatment of cancer.