After years of extensive scientific discovery much has been learned about the networks that regulate epithelial homeostasis. Loss of expression or functional activity of cell adhesion and cell polarity proteins (including the PAR, crumbs (CRB) and scribble (SCRIB) complexes) is intricately related to advanced stages of tumour progression and invasiveness. But the key roles of these proteins in crosstalk with the Hippo and liver kinase B1 (LKB1)-AMPK pathways and in epithelial function and proliferation indicate that they may also be associated with the early stages of tumorigenesis. For example, deregulation of adhesion and polarity proteins can cause misoriented cell divisions and increased self-renewal of adult epithelial stem cells. In this Review, we highlight some advances in the understanding of how loss of epithelial cell polarity contributes to tumorigenesis.