While standard therapies can lead to an initial remission of aggressive cancers, they are often only a transient solution. The resistance and relapse that follows is driven by tumor heterogeneity and therapy-resistant populations that can reinitiate growth and promote disease progression. There is thus a significant need to understand the cell types and signaling pathways that not only contribute to cancer initiation, but also those that confer resistance and drive recurrence. Here, we discuss work showing that stem cells and progenitors may preferentially serve as a cell of origin for cancers, and that cancer stem cells can be key in driving the continued growth and functional heterogeneity of established cancers. We also describe emerging evidence for the role of developmental signals in cancer initiation, propagation, and therapy resistance and discuss how targeting these pathways may be of therapeutic value.