Although we have come a long way in our understanding of the signals that drive cancer growth, and how these signals can be targeted, effective control of this disease remains a key scientific and medical challenge. The therapy resistance and relapse that are commonly seen are driven in large part by the inherent heterogeneity within cancers that allows drugs to effectively eliminate some, but not all, malignant cells. Here, we focus on the fundamental drivers of this heterogeneity by examining emerging evidence that shows that these traits are often controlled by the disruption of normal cell fate and aberrant adoption of stem cell signals. We discuss how undifferentiated cells are preferentially primed for transformation and often serve as the cell of origin for cancers. We also consider evidence showing that activation of stem cell programmes in cancers can lead to progression, therapy resistance and metastatic growth and that targeting these attributes may enable better control over a difficult disease.