The cancer stem cell hypothesis states that tumours arise from cells with the ability to self-renew and differentiate into multiple cell types, and that these cells persist in tumors as a distinct population that can cause disease relapse and hence metastasis. The crux of this hypothesis is that these cells are the only cells capable of, by themselves, giving rise to new tumours. What proportion of a tumour consists of these stem cells, where are they localised, how are they regulated, and how can we identify them? The stromal cells embedded within the extracellular matrix (ECM) not only provide a scaffold but also produce ECM constituents for use by stem cells. Heparan sulfate proteoglycans (HSPGs) are ubiquitous to this cell niche and interact with a large number of ligands including growth factors, their receptors, and ECM structural components. It is still unclear whether ECM degradation and subsequent metastasis is a result of proteases produced by the tumour cells themselves or by cells within the stromal compartment. The identification of the cellular origin of cancer stem cells along with microenvironmental changes involved in the initiation, progression and the malignant conversion of all cancers is critical to the development of targeted therapeutics. As ubiquitous members of the ECM microenvironment and hence the cancer cell niche, HSPGs are candidates for a central role in these processes.