To examine the impression of cancer the nurse is likely to convey to the public, 785 female hospital nurses were asked by means of postal questionnaire to give their opinion of the curability and treatment of cancer and the extent to which they regard the disease as alarming. Seven out of ten nurses disagreed with the statement that a patient who had had cancer can never really be cured. Characteristics leading to a better appreciation of the curability of cancer included training, increasing age and length of service and accurate knowledge of survival rates. Positive, personal experience of cancer was more important than professional experience of cancer nursing, suggesting it is the nature of the experience that is important. Young learners had a very poor understanding of the curability of cancer. The majority of nurses considered it at least sometimes true that treatment could do more harm than good and this conclusion is reached very early on in the nurse's career. Trained nurses had a better appreciation of palliative treatment. Nurses, like women generally, tend to regard cancer as the most alarming condition, although this view is less prevalent among trained or experienced nurses. While characterizing nurses’views about cancer as optimistic or pessimistic is not necessarily helpful, it is clear that a minority of nurses would find it difficult to present anything other than a negative view of cancer to their social network.