Hepatitis B virus (HBV) reactivation is a well-described complication in cancer patients who receive cytotoxic chemotherapy and may result in varying degrees of liver damage. As chemotherapy is used increasingly in cancer patients, HBV reactivation during cytotoxic treatment may become a more common problem. In lymphoma patients, the incidence of chronic HBV infection has been reported to be 26%, of whom 47% developed HBV reactivation during chemotherapy. However, corresponding data for patients with other malignancies undergoing cytotoxic chemotherapy are not known. In this prospective study, hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) was determined in 626 consecutive cancer patients who received cytotoxic chemotherapy over a 12-month period. Seventy-eight patients (12%) were found to be HBsAg positive. Thirty-four (44%) developed raised alanine transaminase during their course of chemotherapy. In these 34 patients, hepatitis was attributed to HBV reactivation in 15 patients (44%), chronic active HBV infection in 1 patient (3%), hepatitis C infection in 1 patient (3%), malignant hepatic infiltration in 2 patients (6%), and the use of hepatotoxic chemotherapeutic agents in 11 patients (32%). The causes of hepatitis were unknown in 4 patients (12%). HBV reactivation was more likely to develop in patients who were male, younger age, HBeAg seropositive, and those with lymphoma. Presence of malignant hepatic infiltration, baseline pre-treatment alanine transaminase, total bilirubin, and HBV DNA levels did not correlate with the development of HBV reactivation. Of the 15 patients who developed HBV reactivation, antiviral therapy with lamivudine was available and used in 9. There was no HBV-related mortality during chemotherapy. It is concluded that in patients with chronic HBV infection under chemotherapy, HBV reactivation occurs in nearly 20% of them and accounts for 44% of hepatitis cases. The risk factors identified include male sex, younger age, HBeAg seropositive, and the diagnosis of lymphoma. In HBV endemic areas, patients with risk factors for HBV reactivation should be identified prior to receiving cytotoxic treatment and monitored closely. The potential benefit of lamivudine requires further confirmation.