Autophagy is an evolutionarily conserved lysosomal pathway for degrading cytoplasmic proteins, macromolecules, and organelles. While autophagy has become one of the most attractive topics in cancer research, the current autophagy literature is often viewed as confusing, because of its association with apparently contradictory roles, such as survival and cell death. Autophagy can serve as a tumor suppressor, as a partial reduction in autophagic capacity or defective autophagy (e. g., heterozygous knockdown BECN1 (+/-) in mice) provides an oncogenic stimulus, causing malignant transformation and spontaneous tumors. In addition, autophagy seems to function as a protective cell survival mechanism against environmental and cellular stress (e. g., nutrient deprivation, hypoxia and therapeutic stress) and causes resistance to antineoplastic therapies. Recent studies have demonstrated that the inhibition of autophagy in cancer cells may be therapeutically beneficial in some circumstances, as it can sensitize cancer cells to different therapies, including DNA-damaging agents, antihormone therapies (e. g., tamoxifen), and radiation therapy. This supports the hypothesis that inhibiting autophagy can negatively influence cancer cell survival and increase cell death when combined with anticancer agents, providing a therapeutic advantage against cancer. On the other hand, the induction of autophagy by the inhibition of anti-autophagic proteins, such as Bcl-2, PKCd, and tissue transglutaminase 2 (TG2), may lead to autophagic cell death in some apoptosis-resistant cancers (i.e., breast and pancreatic cancers), indicating that the induction of autophagy alone may also be used as a potential therapy. Overall, the data suggest that, depending on the cellular features, either the induction or the inhibition of autophagy can provide therapeutic benefits to patients and that the design and synthesis of the first-generation modulators of autophagy may provide the tools for proof of concept experiments and the impetus for translational studies that may ultimately lead to new therapeutic strategies in cancer.