A retrospective study of patients with cancer diagnoses treated at a Swedish county hospital was carried out in order to analyse medical care utilization by incurable cancer patients. All 208 patients customarily treated at the Department of General Surgery in Ostersund Hospital for cancer diagnoses during 1 year were included in the study. The main outcome measures were: number of institutional days; admissions; duration of terminal hospitalization. The Department of General Surgery supplied 7570 of all 12,276 (62%) institutional days needed throughout the disease course. The terminal hospitalization (i.e. the period of continuous institutional care ending with the death of the patient) constituted 39% of all institutional days. The duration of the terminal hospitalization seemed to be unrelated to various diagnoses and demographic variables. Patients with cancer of the breast utilized most institutional days/patient (median 80 institutional days) during the disease course. Married patients and patients living within a 40 km radius of the hospital spent significantly more days at the Department of General Surgery during the last 6 months of life than did the unmarried and those living further afield.