Genome instability is a hallmark of cancer, and DNA replication is the most vulnerable cellular process that can lead to it. Any condition leading to high levels of DNA damage will result in replication stress, which is a source of genome instability and a feature of pre-cancerous and cancerous cells. Therefore, understanding the molecular basis of replication stress is crucial to the understanding of tumorigenesis. Although a negative aspect of replication stress is its prominent role in tumorigenesis, a positive aspect is that it provides a potential target for cancer therapy. In this Review, we discuss the link between persistent replication stress and tumorigenesis, with the goal of shedding light on the mechanisms underlying the initiation of an oncogenic process, which should open up new possibilities for cancer diagnostics and treatment.