Sphingolipids, including the two central bioactive lipids ceramide and sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P), have opposing roles in regulating cancer cell death and survival, respectively, and there have been exciting developments in understanding how sphingolipid metabolism and signalling regulate these processes in response to anticancer therapy. Recent studies have provided mechanistic details of the roles of sphingolipids and their downstream targets in the regulation of tumour growth and response to chemotherapy, radiotherapy and/or immunotherapy using innovative molecular, genetic and pharmacological tools to target sphingolipid signalling nodes in cancer cells. For example, structure-function-based studies have provided innovative opportunities to develop mechanism-based anticancer therapeutic strategies to restore anti-proliferative ceramide signalling and/or inhibit pro-survival S1P-S1P receptor (S1PR) signalling. This Review summarizes how ceramide-induced cellular stress mediates cancer cell death through various mechanisms involving the induction of apoptosis, necroptosis and/or mitophagy. Moreover, the metabolism of ceramide for S1P biosynthesis, which is mediated by sphingosine kinase 1 and 2, and its role in influencing cancer cell growth, drug resistance and tumour metastasis through S1PR-dependent or receptor-independent signalling are highlighted. Finally, studies targeting enzymes involved in sphingolipid metabolism and/or signalling and their clinical implications for improving cancer therapeutics are also presented.