Autophagy (also known as macroautophagy) captures intracellular components in autophagosomes and delivers them to lysosomes, where they are degraded and recycled. Autophagy can have two functions in cancer. It can be tumour suppressive through the elimination of oncogenic protein substrates, toxic unfolded proteins and damaged organelles. Alternatively, it can be tumour promoting in established cancers through autophagy-mediated intracellular recycling that provides substrates for metabolism and that maintains the functional pool of mitochondria. Therefore, defining the context-specific role for autophagy in cancer and the mechanisms involved will be important to guide autophagy-based therapeutic intervention.