Contrary to conventional wisdom, functional mitochondria are essential for the cancer cell. Although mutations in mitochondrial genes are common in cancer cells, they do not inactivate mitochondrial energy metabolism but rather alter the mitochondrial bioenergetic and biosynthetic state. These states communicate with the nucleus through mitochondrial 'retrograde signalling' to modulate signal transduction pathways, transcriptional circuits and chromatin structure to meet the perceived mitochondrial and nuclear requirements of the cancer cell. Cancer cells then reprogramme adjacent stromal cells to optimize the cancer cell environment. These alterations activate out-of-context programmes that are important in development, stress response, wound healing and nutritional status.