This study investigates how cancer patients who receive care from community specialist palliative care (CSPC) nurses differ from those who do not. This was achieved by secondary data analyses from the Regional Study of Care for the Dying, a retrospective interview survey of deaths in 1990 in 20 nationally representative health districts. Interviews were obtained for 2,074/2,915 (71%) of randomly selected cancer deaths; 574 (27.8%) were reported to have received care from a Macmillan nurse, hospice home-care nurse, or other community specialist palliative care nurse. Using logistic regression analysis 10 factors were found to predict independently CSPC use. Being dependent with dressing/undressing, needing help at night, having constipation, experiencing vomiting/nausea, being mentally confused, having breast cancer and being under the age of 75 years increased the likelihood of receiving CSPC. Having a lymphoma, leukaemia or myeloma, a brain tumour and being dependent on others for help with self-care for more than 1 year decreased the likelihood. The use of CSPC nurses to provide expertise in symptom control and to support families of dependent patients is consistent with the aims of palliative care, and therefore appears appropriate. Further research is, however, needed to investigate the apparent age bias in access to these services, and to ensure that CSPC services are provided on the basis of need, irrespective of patient age.