Natural killer (NK) cells and natural killer T (NKT) cells are subsets of lymphocytes that share some phenotypical and functional similarities. Both cell types can rapidly respond to the presence of tumour cells and participate in antitumour immune responses. This has prompted interest in the development of innovative cancer therapies that are based on the manipulation of NK and NKT cells. Recent studies have highlighted how the immune reactivity of NK and NKT cells is shaped by the environment in which they develop. The rational use of these cells in cancer immunotherapies awaits a better understanding of their effector functions, migratory patterns and survival properties in humans.