The aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) is a ligand-activated transcription factor that is best known for mediating the toxicity and tumour-promoting properties of the carcinogen 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, commonly referred to as ‘dioxin’. AHR influences the major stages of tumorigenesis — initiation, promotion, progression and metastasis — and physiologically relevant AHR ligands are often formed during disease states or during heightened innate and adaptive immune responses. Interestingly, ligand specificity and affinity vary between rodents and humans. Studies of aggressive tumours and tumour cell lines show increased levels of AHR and constitutive localization of this receptor in the nucleus. This suggests that the AHR is chronically activated in tumours, thus facilitating tumour progression. This Review discusses the role of AHR in tumorigenesis and the potential for therapeutic modulation of its activity in tumours.