From 1 January 1983 to 1 January 1989 123 cirrhotic patients with hepatocellular cancer (n = 122) or cholangiocarcinoma (n = 1) were screened using liver function tests, α-fetoprotein determination, ultrasonography with biopsy (and in selected cases computed tomography or nuclear magnetic resonance), laparoscopy and angiography, Child-Pugh classification and urea-nitrogen synthesis rate. Twenty-three patients were selected for surgical resection because the tumour was smaller than 5 cm, not centrally located and at least 1 cm away from main structures; there was no evidence of multicentricity or metastatic disease; and the Child-Pugh classification was A or B and the urea-nitrogen synthesis rate at least 6 g/day. Upper gastrointestinal endoscopy was used routinely to identify oesophageal varices which were present in 17 cases; ten patients with a history of variceal haemorrhage (43 per cent) had preoperative endoscopic sclerotherapy. In cases with recurrent haemorrhage, surgery was used to prevent intraoperative and postoperative bleeding. Tumour resection was carried out using controlled hypotension and hepatoduodenal ligament clamping. Twelve bisegmentectomies, ten segmentectomies and one atypical resection were performed. The operative mortality rate was 13 per cent with liver failure and sepsis as the causes of death. The ‘recurrence rate’ was 26 per cent and the late mortality rate for the whole group up to 1 January 1990 was 30 per cent; 13 patients were still alive. The 12-month survival rate was 77 per cent and after 5 years it was 49 per cent. Thus, surgical resection of small liver tumours is the treatment of choice in this selected group of patients.