Impaired apoptosis is both critical in cancer development and a major barrier to effective treatment. In response to diverse intracellular damage signals, including those evoked by cancer therapy, the cell's decision to undergo apoptosis is determined by interactions between three factions of the Bcl-2 protein family. The damage signals are transduced by the diverse 'BH3-only' proteins, distinguished by the BH3 domain used to engage their pro-survival relatives: Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, Bcl-w, Mcl-1 and A1. This interaction ablates pro-survival function and allows activation of Bax and Bak, which commit the cell to apoptosis by permeabilizing the outer membrane of the mitochondrion. Certain BH3-only proteins (e.g. Bim, Puma) can engage all the pro-survival proteins, but others (e.g. Bad, Noxa) engage only subsets. Activation of Bax and Bak appears to require that the BH3-only proteins engage the multiple pro-survival proteins guarding Bax and Bak, rather than binding to the latter. The balance between the pro-survival proteins and their BH3 ligands regulates tissue homeostasis, and either overexpression of a pro-survival family member or loss of a proapoptotic relative can be oncogenic. Better understanding of the Bcl-2 family is clarifying its role in cancer development, revealing how conventional therapy works and stimulating the search for 'BH3 mimetics' as a novel class of anticancer drugs.