Neutrophils are indispensable antagonists of microbial infection and facilitators of wound healing. In the cancer setting, a newfound appreciation for neutrophils has come into view. The traditionally held belief that neutrophils are inert bystanders is being challenged by the recent literature. Emerging evidence indicates that tumours manipulate neutrophils, sometimes early in their differentiation process, to create diverse phenotypic and functional polarization states able to alter tumour behaviour. In this Review, we discuss the involvement of neutrophils in cancer initiation and progression, and their potential as clinical biomarkers and therapeutic targets.