Ethnography was employed to investigate the hypothesis that the cultural meaning of cancer is one of the possible barriers to access of cancer services. The objectives were to identify indigenous terminologies, taxonomies and illness explanatory models of cancer in a community-based sample of 15 Chinese-Australians and a sample of 16 informants who had been recruited through two Sydney familial cancer clinics. Many of the informants included in their narrative terms that seemed to match Western biomedical explanations for cancer. The majority of informants also maintained traditional Chinese beliefs, despite high acculturation and beliefs in biomedical explanations about cancer. Explanations of illness including cancer, referred to the following concepts: (i) karma (yeh), (ii) retribution (bao ying), (iii) fate (ming yun) or Heaven's or God's will, (iv) geomancy (feng-shui), (v) touched evil (zhong chia), (vi) misfortune or bad luck (shui wan, dong hark); (vii) offending the gods or deities requiring prayers or offerings for appeasement; and (viii) kong-tau (spells invoked through human intervention). Taking into consideration the heterogeneity of the Chinese population, the findings provide an insight into Chinese illness conceptualization that may assist health professionals to develop an understanding of how the cultural explanatory models affect access to screening services, communication of diagnosis of cancer and management of treatment regimen.