Background This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the approval by the US Food and Drug Administration of interleukin-2 (IL2) for use in cancer therapy, initially for renal cell carcinoma and later for melanoma. IL2 therapy for cancer has stood the test of time, with continued widespread use in Europe, parts of Asia, and the US. Clinical complete responses are variably reported at 5%–20% for advanced malignant melanoma and renal cell carcinoma, with strong durable responses and sustained long-term 5–10-year survival being typical if complete responses are generated. Methods The literature was reviewed for the actions and clinical effects of IL2 on subsets of T cells. The influence of IL2 on clinical efficacy was also sought. Results The review revealed that IL2 is capable of stimulating different populations of T cells in humans to induce either T effector or T regulatory responses. This apparent “functional paradox” has confounded a clear understanding of the mechanisms behind the clinical effects that are observed during and following administration of IL2 therapy. An average complete response rate of around 7% in small and large clinical trials using IL2 for advanced renal cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma has been shown from a recent review of the literature. Conclusion This review considers the published literature concerning the actions and emerging clinical effects of IL2 therapy, spanning its 20-year period in clinical use. It further details some of the recently described “bimodal” effects of IL2 to explain the apparent functional paradox, and how IL2 might be harnessed to emerge rapidly as a much more effective and predictable clinical agent in the near future.