CD28-driven “signal 2” is critical for naïve CD8+ T cell responses to dendritic cell (DC)-presented weak antigens, including non-mutated tumor-associated antigens (TAAs). However, it is unclear how DC-primed cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) respond to the same TAAs presented by cancer cells which lack CD28 ligands. Here, we show that NK receptors (NKRs) DNAM-1 and NKG2D replace CD28 during CTL re-activation by cancer cells presenting low levels of MHC I/TAA complexes, leading to enhanced proximal TCR signaling, immune synapse formation, CTL polyfunctionality, release of cytolytic granules and antigen-specific cancer cell killing. Double-transduction of T cells with recombinant TCR and NKR constructs or upregulation of NKR-ligand expression on cancer cells by chemotherapy enabled effective recognition and killing of poorly immunogenic tumor cells by CTLs. Operational synergy between TCR and NKRs in CTL recognition explains the ability of cancer-expressed self-antigens to serve as tumor rejection antigens, helping to develop more effective therapies.