Rapid development of anticancer therapies has occurred, but many challenges remain, including difficulties in early detection and the side effects from chemotherapy. To address these problems, aptamers, which are single-stranded DNA or RNA oligonucleotides with high selectivity, affinity and stability, have attracted considerable attention for biomedical applications. These oligonucleotides, which are selected by an in vitro process known as cell systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment (cell-SELEX), have demonstrated the merits required to recognize disease cells. As such, they show great potential for applications in both clinical and laboratory settings. This review focuses on recently developed techniques utilizing aptamers in cancer research, including cancer cell detection, sorting and enrichment, as well as targeted drug delivery for cancer therapy.