Cysteine cathepsin protease activity is frequently dysregulated in the context of neoplastic transformation. Increased activity and aberrant localization of proteases within the tumour microenvironment have a potent role in driving cancer progression, proliferation, invasion and metastasis. Recent studies have also uncovered functions for cathepsins in the suppression of the response to therapeutic intervention in various malignancies. However, cathepsins can be either tumour promoting or tumour suppressive depending on the context, which emphasizes the importance of rigorous in vivo analyses to ascertain function. Here, we review the basic research and clinical findings that underlie the roles of cathepsins in cancer, and provide a roadmap for the rational integration of cathepsin-targeting agents into clinical treatment.