The aim of this study is to increase our understanding of the relationship between knowledge and interpretation of symptoms, fear and trust on the one hand, and the decision to consult a general practitioner (GP) for cancer symptoms on the other. Qualitative interviews were used to evaluate the various factors. Twenty-three patients and ten GPs were interviewed. A number of factors were found to play different roles for different patients groups, i.e. patients that consult their doctor prematurely, at the right time, or those that delay. A lot of the findings can be tested using various concepts of socio-psychological theory. Further research should provide an improved understanding of the way these models can be applied to help-seeking behaviour. In terms of implications for health education, we conclude that each patient group has different needs and requires different information. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.