The core aspect of the senescent phenotype is a stable state of cell cycle arrest. However, this is a disguise that conceals a highly active metabolic cell state with diverse functionality. Both the cell-autonomous and the non-cell-autonomous activities of senescent cells create spatiotemporally dynamic and context-dependent tissue reactions. For example, the senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP) provokes not only tumour-suppressive but also tumour-promoting responses. Senescence is now increasingly considered to be an integrated and widespread component that is potentially important for tumour development, tumour suppression and the response to therapy.