A hallmark of neoplasia is dysregulated apoptosis, programmed cell death. Apoptosis is crucial for normal tissue homeostasis. Dysregulation of apoptotic pathways leads to reduced cytocidal responses to chemotherapeutic drugs or radiation and is a frequent contributor to therapeutic resistance in cancer. The literature pertaining to detection of apoptotic pathway constituents in cytologic specimens is reviewed herein. Virtually all methods for detecting apoptosis, including classic cytomorphologic evaluation, TUNEL assay, immunocytochemistry, and gene sequence analysis, may be applied to cytologic samples as well as tissue. Components of both intrinsic and extrinsic apoptotic pathways have been studied, including many reports examining p53 and bcl-2, as well as studies of caspase inhibitory proteins XIAP and survivin, death receptors and ligands such as Fas, Fasligand, and TRAIL. p53 undergoes oncogenic alteration more than any other protein; its immunocytochemical detection almost always connotes loss of its physiologic role as an inducer of apoptosis in response to a damaged genome. Several reports establish cytologic sampling as being as useful as tissue sampling. In one respect cytologic sampling is superior to tissue sampling in particular, by allowing clinicians to repeat sampling of the same tumor before and after administration of therapy; a number of reports use this approach to attempt to predict tumor response by assaying the effect of chemotherapy on the induction of apoptosis.