The process of metastasis is characterized by the shedding of tumor cells into the bloodstream, where they are transported to other parts of the body to seed new tumors. These cells, known as circulating tumor cells (CTCs), have the potential to reveal much about an individual cancer case, and theoretically can aid in the prediction of outcomes and design of precision treatments. Recent advances in technology now allow for the robust and reproducible characterization of CTCs from a simple blood draw. Both the number of circulating cells and important molecular characteristics correlated with clinical phenotypes such as drug resistance can be obtained and used for real-time prognostic analysis. Molecular characterization can provide a snapshot of the activity of the main tumor (serving as a "liquid biopsy") and early warnings concerning changes such as the development of resistance, and aid in predicting the efficacy of different therapeutic approaches for treatment optimization. Herein, the authors review the current clinical use of CTCs as prognostic biomarkers for several different cancers. The quantification of CTCs can lead to more accurate staging and decision making regarding options such as adjuvant chemotherapy.