A number of studies have identified problems with undergraduate oncology teaching. We have investigated how well prepared newly qualified doctors (first foundation year, or FY1 doctors) are for treating patients with cancer. Twenty-five FY1 doctors and 15 senior doctors participated in interviews. We turned the emergent themes into a questionnaire for all 5143 UK FY1 doctors in 2005. The response rate was 43% (2062 responses). Sixty-one percent of FY1 doctors had received oncology teaching at medical school, but 31% recalled seeing fewer than 10 patients with cancer. Forty percent of FY1 doctors felt prepared for looking after patients with cancer. Sixty-five percent felt prepared for diagnosing cancer, 15% felt they knew enough about chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and 11% felt prepared for dealing with oncological emergencies. Respondents believed medical students should learn about symptom control (71%) and communication skills (41%). Respondents who had received oncology teaching were more likely to feel prepared for looking after patients with cancer (OR 1.52; 95% CI 1.14-2.04). Preparedness also correlated with exposure to patients with cancer (OR 1.48; 95% CI 1.22-1.79). We have found worryingly low levels of exposure of medical students to patients with cancer. First foundation year doctors lack knowledge about cancer care and symptom control. Oncologists should maintain involvement in undergraduate teaching, and encourage greater involvement of patients in this teaching.