AIM: This paper reports a study illuminating meanings of being in the physical environment of an oncology centre as narrated by patients, significant others and staff. BACKGROUND: The physical environment of hospitals can convey different messages. For example, landscape pictures, plants and comfortable chairs can convey positive messages, while sparsely decorated and run-down environments can convey negative values. Traditional healthcare environments may be experienced as unfamiliar, strange and alienating, fostering feelings of stress and vulnerability. The majority of research on care environments has employed experimental designs to test different environmental variables, for example sound, colour and architecture, in relation to patient outcomes such as recovery, pain and blood pressure. There is, however, little research-based understanding of the meanings of being in these environments. METHODS: A phenomenological hermeneutic approach was applied to analyse 17 interviews with patients, significant others and staff carried out during the spring of 2004 at an oncology centre in Sweden. FINDINGS: The physical environment was found to influence experiences of care in four ways: first, by being a symbol expressing messages of death and dying, danger, shame and stigma, less social value and worth; second by containing symbols expressing messages of caring and uncaring, life and death; third, by influencing interaction and the balance between being involved and finding privacy; and fourth, by containing objects that could facilitate a shift of focus away from the self: being able to escape the world of cancer, and finding light in the midst of darkness. The comprehensive understanding illuminates the physical environment as not merely a place for caring, but as an important part of caring that needs to be accounted for in nursing care. CONCLUSION: To promote well-being among patients, we need to ask ourselves if the environment imposes rather than eases suffering. Our findings also suggest the importance of not limiting our conceptions of nursing to nurse-patient relationships, but of using the therapeutic potential of the total environment in nursing care.