Activation of nuclear factor (NF)-κB, one of the most investigated transcription factors, has been found to control multiple cellular processes in cancer including inflammation, transformation, proliferation, angiogenesis, invasion, metastasis, chemoresistance and radioresistance. NF-κB is constitutively active in most tumor cells, and its suppression inhibits the growth of tumor cells, leading to the concept of NF-κB addiction in cancer cells. Why NF-κB is constitutively and persistently active in cancer cells is not fully understood, but multiple mechanisms have been delineated including agents that activate NF-κB (such as viruses, viral proteins, bacteria and cytokines), signaling intermediates (such as mutant receptors, overexpression of kinases, mutant oncoproteins, degradation of IBα, histone deacetylase, overexpression of transglutaminase and iNOS) and cross talk between NF-κB and other transcription factors (such as STAT3, HIF-1α, AP1, SP, p53, PPARγ, Β-catenin, AR, GR and ER). As NF-κB is pre-active in cancer cells through unrelated mechanisms, classic inhibitors of NF-κB (for example, bortezomib) are unlikely to mediate their anticancer effects through suppression of NF-κB. This review discusses multiple mechanisms of NF-κB activation and their regulation by multitargeted agents in contrast to monotargeted agents, thus one size does not fit all cancers. © 2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited All rights reserved.