One crucial barrier to progress in the treatment of cancer has been the inability to control the balance between cell proliferation and apoptosis: enter ceramide. Discoveries over the past 15 years have elevated this sphingolipid to the lofty position of a regulator of cell fate. Ceramide, it turns out, is a powerful tumour suppressor, potentiating signalling events that drive apoptosis, autophagic responses and cell cycle arrest. However, defects in ceramide generation and metabolism in cancer cells contribute to tumour cell survival and resistance to chemotherapy. This Review focuses on ceramide signalling and the targeting of specific metabolic junctures to amplify the tumour suppressive activities of ceramide. The potential of ceramide-based therapeutics in the treatment of cancer is also discussed.