OBJECTIVE To illuminate district nurses' experiences in the home care of cancer patients. DESIGN A qualitative approach. SETTING Primary health care in the south-east of Sweden. PARTICIPANTS 39 district nurses employed in the eastern part of the county council area. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE Interpretation of tape recorded interviews concerning positive and negative experiences of caring for cancer patients. FINDINGS In the meeting with cancer patients nurses reported some satisfaction, but mainly dissatisfaction and strong feelings of mental strain. Situations identified as especially trying were connected with dressing of ulcerous cancer wounds, managing physical pain, being too close to the patient, not being allowed to communicate openly, not being allowed to help, and patient's trust in alternative medicine. Positive experiences were described when nurses were accepted as helpers. District nurses felt like cowards, and also experienced meaninglessness, uncertainty, shame, irresolution, and insufficiency in the trying situations. The overall emotional tone in the interviews was, however, positive. The deep human contacts were described as a source of both strain and enrichment. CONCLUSION It seems important to develop support systems to provide district nurses with an opportunity to discuss and handle emotions evoked in the care, thereby improving their possibilities of caring for terminally ill cancer patients.