Telomere length maintenance is essential for cell proliferation, which is particularly prominent in cancer. We validate that the primary colorectal tumors exhibit heterogeneous telomere lengths but mostly (90%) short telomeres relative to normal tissues. Intriguingly, relatively short telomeres are associated with tumor malignancy as indicated by poorly differentiated state, and these tumors contain more cancer stem-like cells (CSLCs) identified by several commonly used markers CD44, EPHB2 or LGR5. Moreover, promyelocytic leukemia (PML) and ALT-associated PML nuclear bodies (APBs) are frequently found in tumors with short telomeres and high proliferation. In contrast, distant normal tissues rarely or only minimally express PML. Inhibition of PML and APBs by an ATR inhibitor decreases proliferation of CSLCs and organoids, suggesting a potential therapeutic target to progressive colorectal tumors. Together, telomere maintenance underling tumor progression is connected with CSLCs.