After more than twenty years of research, the molecular events of apoptotic cell death can be succinctly stated; different pathways, activated by diverse signals, increase the activity of proteases called caspases that rapidly and irreversibly dismantle condemned cell by cleaving specific substrates. In this time the ideas that apoptosis protects us from tumourigenesis and that cancer chemotherapy works by inducing apoptosis also emerged. Currently, apoptosis research is shifting away from the intracellular events within the dying cell to focus on the effect of apoptotic cells on surrounding tissues. This is producing counterintuitive data showing that our understanding of the role of apoptosis in tumourigenesis and cancer therapy is too simple, with some interesting and provocative implications. Here, we will consider evidence supporting the idea that dying cells signal their presence to the surrounding tissue and, in doing so, elicit repair and regeneration that compensates for any loss of function caused by cell death. We will discuss evidence suggesting that cancer cell proliferation may be driven by inappropriate or corrupted tissue-repair programmes that are initiated by signals from apoptotic cells and show how this may dramatically modify how we view the role of apoptosis in both tumourigenesis and cancer therapy.