OBJECTIVE: As in Brazil cancer registries are mostly based on large cities, there are no estimates per state or per region and information on the disease incidence in the vast in-land areas is very scarce. An incidence survey was conducted in 18 major cities of the state of São Paulo, excluding the capital, aiming to collect information about cancer incidence in the state of São Paulo. METHODS: Of the 18 cities in state of São Paulo included in the survey, all had available resources for cancer management. Data from the year of 1991 were collected by the personnel of the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (Brazilian Institute of Statistics), who were especially trained by the study coordinators at the Fundação Oncocentro de São Paulo (Cancer Center of São Paulo). The collected data were processed and analyzed at the Oncocentro. Data collection, processing, and analyses were performed according to the recommendations of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. RESULTS: Although some discrepancies were observed in cancer incidence rates between the cities, results obtained for all 18 cities combined were remarkably close to those recently found for the city of São Paulo in the year 1993. One remarkable finding was the relatively high cancer incidence rates in both sexes in the city of Santos. CONCLUSIONS: The very similar all-sites cancer incidence rates found in the year 1991, when compared to those for the city of São Paulo in the year 1993, are suggestive that all regions have common cancer-related factors. Nevertheless, other explanations, such as the inclusion in the study of prevalent cases, as well as of non-residents, may have occurred in both studies, biasing the results. There is a need of further studies to confirm the high cancer incidence in Santos.