There is a rising incidence of patients presenting with advanced cancer in the head and neck region. Late presentation may be due to a delay in seeking medical attention, which is sometimes surprisingly long. The aim of the present prospective study was to investigate the association between patient delay and the psychological factors of optimism, health hardiness, overall defensive functioning, coping styles and psychological distress in 277 patients with cancer of the head and neck. Significant correlations were found between patient delay and the psychological factors. Twenty-six percent of the patients waited more than three months before seeking medical attention and they reported less optimism (P = 0.0001), less health hardiness (P = 0.008), less active coping (P = 0.019) and less seeking support as a coping style (P = 0.017) than patients presenting within three months. Excessive drinkers (5+ alcoholic drinks/day) tended to show more delay than patients who did not drink or were moderate drinkers (0-2 drinks/day) or moderate-heavy drinkers (3-4 drinks/day). Together, the psychological factors could explain 25% of the variance of patient delay in excessive drinkers compared with 21% and 6% in moderate-heavy drinkers and non-drinkers to moderate drinkers, respectively. These results suggest that psychological factors affect health-care seeking behaviour. Health education aimed at the risk group of excessive drinkers should take psychological factors into account that influence their health behaviour.