Despite improvements in the understanding of cancer causation, much remains unknown regarding the mechanisms by which genomic and non-genomic factors initiate carcinogenesis, drive cell invasion and metastasis, and enable cancer to develop. Technological advances have enabled the analysis of whole genomes, comprising thousands of tumours across populations worldwide, with the aim of identifying mutation signatures associated with particular tumour types. Large collaborative efforts have resulted in the identification and improved understanding of causal factors, and have shed light on new opportunities to prevent cancer. In this new era in cancer genomics, discoveries from studies conducted on an international scale can inform evidence-based strategies in cancer control along the cancer care continuum, from prevention to treatment. In this Review, we present the relevant history and emerging frontiers of cancer genetics and genomics from the perspective of global cancer prevention. We highlight the importance of local context in the adoption of new technologies and emergent evidence, with illustrative examples from worldwide. We emphasize the challenges in implementing important genomic findings in clinical settings with disparate resource availability and present a conceptual framework for the translation of such findings into clinical practice, and evidence-based policies in order to maximize the utility for a population.