Transposable elements (TEs) represent almost half of the human genome. Historically deemed ‘junk DNA’, recent technological advancements have stimulated a wave of research into the functional impact of TEs on gene-regulatory networks in evolution and development, as well as in diseases including cancer. The genetic and epigenetic evolution of cancer involves the exploitation of TEs, whereby TEs contribute directly to cancer-specific gene activities. This Review provides a perspective on the role of TEs in cancer as being a ‘double-edged sword’, both promoting cancer evolution and representing a vulnerability that could be exploited in cancer therapy. We discuss how TEs affect transcriptome regulation and other cellular processes in cancer. We highlight the potential of TEs as therapeutic targets for cancer. We also summarize technical hurdles in the characterization of TEs with genomic assays. Last, we outline open questions and exciting future research avenues.