Our research focuses on the complexity of needs associated with distress in people with advanced cancer. We have recently completed a large longitudinal survey exploring the interplay between a number of components of distress, including depression, demoralisation, debility and spirituality, amongst a cohort of people living with terminal cancer. Participants were recruited from 25 hospices across the Northwest of England between 2007–2009. A purposive subsample of 27 people was invited to take part in a qualitative interview to explore in greater depth their personal experiences of living with illness and related distress. Holistic-content analysis revealed two emerging themes: ‘personal or personalised care’ and ‘expectations of truth and certainty’. We discuss these themes in the light of Illich’s critique of health care as a ‘technical response to a personal challenge’. We highlight the need for further work to explore the impact of organisation of care on personalised need and suggest looking to the chronic illness self-management literature for help in developing future palliative care approaches.