Recent developments in the field of genetics have accelerated our understanding of the aetiology of complex diseases. Type 2 diabetes mellitus and cancer are no exception, with large-scale genome-wide association studies (GWAS) facilitating exploration of the underlying pathology. Here, we discuss how genetics studies can be used to investigate the relationship between these complex diseases. Observational epidemiological studies consistently report that people with type 2 diabetes have a higher risk of several types of cancer. Indeed, type 2 diabetes and cancer share many common risk factors, such as obesity, ageing, poor diet and low levels of physical activity. However, questions remain regarding the biological mechanisms that link these two diseases. Large-scale GWAS of type 2 diabetes and cancer allow us to consider the evidence for shared genetic architecture. Several shared susceptibility genes have been identified, yet tissue specificity and direction of effect must be taken into account when considering common genetic aetiology. We also consider how GWAS, and associated techniques such as Mendelian randomisation, allow us to dissect the link between the two diseases and address questions such as 'Does type 2 diabetes cause cancer or is the increased risk observed driven by higher adiposity or another associated metabolic feature?' Graphical abstract.