The programmed death 1 (PD-1) pathway delivers inhibitory signals that function as a brake for immune responses. This pathway limits the initiation and duration of immune responses, thereby protecting tissues from immune-mediated damage and autoimmune diseases. However, the PD-1 pathway also inhibits immune responses to tumors. The critical role of PD-1 in preventing antitumor immunity is demonstrated by the transformative effects of PD-1 pathway blockade in a broad range of cancers with the hallmark of durability of response. Despite this success, most patients do not respond to PD-1 monotherapy, and some patients experience adverse events. In this review, we discuss the functions of the PD-1 pathway and its translation to cancer immunotherapy. We also consider current challenges and opportunities for PD-1 cancer immunotherapy, including mechanisms of response and resistance, identification of biomarkers of response to PD-1 therapy, characterization and treatment of PD-1 therapy-related adverse events, and development of safe and effective combination therapies.