Paradigm shifts in surgery arise when surgeons are empowered to perform surgery faster, better and less expensively than current standards. Optical imaging that exploits invisible near-infrared (NIR) fluorescent light (700-900 nm) has the potential to improve cancer surgery outcomes, minimize the time patients are under anaesthesia and lower health-care costs largely by way of its improved contrast and depth of tissue penetration relative to visible light. Accordingly, the past few years have witnessed an explosion of proof-of-concept clinical trials in the field. In this Review, we introduce the concept of NIR fluorescence imaging for cancer surgery, examine the clinical trial literature to date and outline the key issues pertaining to imaging system and contrast agent optimization. Although NIR seems to be superior to many traditional imaging techniques, its incorporation into routine care of patients with cancer depends on rigorous clinical trials and validation studies.