Survival data with a sizable cure fraction are commonly encountered in cancer research. The semiparametric proportional hazards cure model has been recently used to analyze such data. As seen in the analysis of data from a breast cancer study, a variable selection approach is needed to identify important factors in predicting the cure status and risk of breast cancer recurrence. However, no specific variable selection method for the cure model is available. In this paper, we present a variable selection approach with penalized likelihood for the cure model. The estimation can be implemented easily by combining the computational methods for penalized logistic regression and the penalized Cox proportional hazards models with the expectation–maximization algorithm. We illustrate the proposed approach on data from a breast cancer study. We conducted Monte Carlo simulations to evaluate the performance of the proposed method. We used and compared different penalty functions in the simulation studies. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.