The regulation of oxidative stress is an important factor in both tumour development and responses to anticancer therapies. Many signalling pathways that are linked to tumorigenesis can also regulate the metabolism of reactive oxygen species (ROS) through direct or indirect mechanisms. High ROS levels are generally detrimental to cells, and the redox status of cancer cells usually differs from that of normal cells. Because of metabolic and signalling aberrations, cancer cells exhibit elevated ROS levels. The observation that this is balanced by an increased antioxidant capacity suggests that high ROS levels may constitute a barrier to tumorigenesis. However, ROS can also promote tumour formation by inducing DNA mutations and pro-oncogenic signalling pathways. These contradictory effects have important implications for potential anticancer strategies that aim to modulate levels of ROS. In this Review, we address the controversial role of ROS in tumour development and in responses to anticancer therapies, and elaborate on the idea that targeting the antioxidant capacity of tumour cells can have a positive therapeutic impact.