Au nanoparticles have been used in biomedical applications since ancient times. However, the rapid development of nanotechnology over the past century has led to recognition of the great potential of Au nanoparticles in a wide range of applications. Advanced fabrication techniques allow us to synthesize a variety of Au nanostructures possessing physiochemical properties that can be exploited for different purposes. Functionalization of the surface of Au nanoparticles further eases their application in various roles. These advantages of Au nanoparticles make them particularly suited for cancer treatment and diagnosis. The small size of Au particles enables them to preferentially accumulate at tumor sites to achieve in vivo targeting after systemic administration. Efficient light absorption followed by rapid heat conversion makes them very promising in photothermal therapy. The facile surface chemistry of Au nanoparticles eases delivery of drugs, ligands or imaging contrast agents in vivo. In this review, we summarize recent development of Au nanoparticles in cancer theranostics including imaging-based detection, photothermal therapy, chemical therapy and drug delivery. The multifunctional nature of Au nanoparticles means they hold great promise as novel anti-cancer therapeutics.