Despite recent progress in understanding the cancer genome, there is still a relative delay in understanding the full aspects of the glycome and glycoproteome of cancer. Glycobiology has been instrumental in relevant discoveries in various biological and medical fields, and has contributed to the deciphering of several human diseases. Glycans are involved in fundamental molecular and cell biology processes occurring in cancer, such as cell signalling and communication, tumour cell dissociation and invasion, cell-matrix interactions, tumour angiogenesis, immune modulation and metastasis formation. The roles of glycans in cancer have been highlighted by the fact that alterations in glycosylation regulate the development and progression of cancer, serving as important biomarkers and providing a set of specific targets for therapeutic intervention. This Review discusses the role of glycans in fundamental mechanisms controlling cancer development and progression, and their applications in oncology.