Transcriptional profiling of tumors has revealed a stress-like state among the cancer cells with the concerted expression of genes such as fos, jun, and heat-shock proteins, though this has been controversial given possible dissociation-effects associated with single-cell RNA sequencing. Here, we validate the existence of this state using a combination of zebrafish melanoma modeling, spatial transcriptomics, and human samples. We found that the stress-like subpopulation of cancer cells is present from the early stages of tumorigenesis. Comparing with previously reported single-cell RNA sequencing datasets from diverse cancer types, including triple-negative breast cancer, oligodendroglioma, and pancreatic adenocarcinoma, indicated the conservation of this state during tumorigenesis. We also provide evidence that this state has higher tumor-seeding capabilities and that its induction leads to increased growth under both MEK and BRAF inhibitors. Collectively, our study supports the stress-like cells as a cancer cell state expressing a coherent set of genes and exhibiting drug-resistance properties.