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Expectations, real or false, affect the way patients respond to their illnesses. We assessed therapy-related expectations in relation to global quality of life in 55 cancer patients before and after radiotherapy. Factor analysis indicated that therapy-related expectations come into three broad categories--pain/emotional control, healing and tumour/symptom control. 35 patients expected 'healing' even though curative treatment was intended in only 19 and all patients had been fully informed. The expectation of healing was associated with high quality of life, and the same was true of perception of healing after radiotherapy. In the group as a whole, quality of life was little altered by radiotherapy, but it became substantially worse in those patients who had expected healing but perceived that this had failed, even though physician-assessed Karnofsky status did not change. These findings indicate that the expectation of healing, in cancer patients, is a component of a good global quality of life, whereas more limited expectations (pain control, tumour control) relate to lower quality of life. Patients' expectations deserve further study as a novel approach to improving care.