In this study we attempted to define the clinical pattern and prognosis of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients in Spain. Two hundred and forty-nine patients were included in the study. One hundred and eighty-seven were male and 62 female, with their mean age being 62.5 +/- 0.6 years. The majority of patients (92.8%) had an underlying cirrhosis. In most of the patients, the disease appeared as decompensated liver disease. Only 18.5% of the HCC cases were asymptomatic. Only 8.2% of the cases were HBsAg positive. alpha-Fetoprotein reached diagnostic values in only 37.2% of the patients. Surgical treatment was successfully performed in 14 patients: one underwent orthotopic liver transplantation and the 13 others complete tumor resection. Chemotherapy was administered to 38 subjects, while percutaneous ethanol injection was applied in seven cases. Patients receiving only symptomatic treatment, comprised 76.7%. Survival was related to tumor size and liver function. While the median survival of the whole series was 3.3 +/- 0.4 months, it was 14.5 +/- 2.2 months in patients with preserved liver function and small tumors. These results reflect that in Spain HCC patients are diagnosed at a moderately advanced phase. Since early diagnosis is the only way to increase the proportion of patients suitable for curative treatment, early detection plans are mandatory in the population at risk.