A vast array of oncogenic variants has been identified for anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK). Therefore, there is a need to better understand the role of ALK in cancer biology in order to optimise treatment strategies. This review summarises the latest research on the receptor tyrosine kinase ALK, and how this information can guide the management of patients with cancer that is ALK-positive. A variety of ALK gene alterations have been described across a range of tumour types, including point mutations, deletions and rearrangements. A wide variety of ALK fusions, in which the kinase domain of ALK and the amino-terminal portion of various protein partners are fused, occur in cancer, with echinoderm microtubule-associated protein-like 4 (EML4)-ALK being the most prevalent in non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Different ALK fusion proteins can mediate different signalling outputs, depending on properties such as subcellular localisation and protein stability. The ALK fusions found in tumours lack spatial and temporal regulation, which can also affect dimerisation and substrate specificity. Two ALK tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), crizotinib and ceritinib, are currently approved in Europe for use in ALK-positive NSCLC and several others are in development. These ALK TKIs bind slightly differently within the ATP-binding pocket of the ALK kinase domain and are associated with the emergence of different resistance mutation patterns during therapy. This emphasises the need to tailor the sequence of ALK TKIs according to the ALK signature of each patient. Research into the oncogenic functions of ALK, and fast paced development of ALK inhibitors, has substantially improved outcomes for patients with ALK-positive NSCLC. Limited data are available surrounding the physiological ligand-stimulated activation of ALK signalling and further research is needed. Understanding the role of ALK in tumour biology is key to further optimising therapeutic strategies for ALK-positive disease.