Studies which apply content analysis techniques to the cancer consultation are few. This descriptive study examines the structure and content of the bad news cancer consultations of 117 outpatients newly referred to the Medical Oncology Department of a large London teaching hospital. From previous communication research three main hypotheses are formed: (i) the cancer consultation is clinician-dominated rather than patient-centred; (ii) the level of psychosocial discussion between clinicians and patients is low and (iii) patient characteristics such as sex, age and prognostic category influence clinician behaviours. Each patient had two consultations with one of 5 oncologists. Both these were audiotaped with the patients' consent. The tapes were content coded using the Roter Interaction Analysis System. Results showed that clinicians tended to use closed rather than open questions. Patients asked few questions and were seldom given space to initiate discussion. Thus, the level of patient-centredness was low. Despite the fact that consultations concerned life threatening disease and often contained information regarding toxic treatment which is known to provoke psychological dysfunction, the number of questions relating to patients' psychological health were few. The amount of discussion concerning medical topics from both parties was 2.5 times greater than the amount of psychosocial discussion. Although there was a suggestion in the data that 3 clinicians showed variations in behaviour according to patient age and prognostic group, the number of patients for each doctor was small. Patients were well informed about their diagnosis, prognosis and treatment options, but their emotional well-being was rarely probed.