Background Few studies have explored young children's understanding of cancer and health-related behaviours yet this is essential to develop health promotion initiatives that build on young children's current knowledge levels and awareness. Method An exploratory descriptive design using the ‘draw and write’ technique was used to investigate children's views of cancer and health behaviours. The sample included 195 children aged eight to 11 years from five schools in deprived, affluent and rural locations in Scotland. Results When asked about cancer children demonstrated a good level of awareness by responding with text and drawings about the what they understood cancer to be; types of cancer; causes of cancer; what happens to people who have cancer; their personal experience of cancer and the emotions they associated with cancer. Older children, and children attending affluent schools, have more defined ideas about the causes of cancer and awareness of broader issues such as the risk of passive smoking or the potential impact on the family. Factors such as alcohol and illegal drugs were only reported by children attending schools in deprived locations. Children demonstrated considerable knowledge about healthy and unhealthy lifestyle behaviours; however, it is not clear whether this knowledge translates into their behaviours or the choices offered within their home environment. Conclusions Children view cancer in a negative way from an early age, even without personal experience. There is a need to demystify cancer in terms of its causes, how to recognize it, how it is treated and to publicize improved survival rates. There is a need for targeted and developmentally appropriate approaches to be taken to health education in schools, with an awareness of the influence of the media on children's information. Strategies should take into consideration the socio-economic and cultural contexts of children's lives which influence their choices and behaviours.