A retrospective review was undertaken of all oesophagectomies performed within a single unit over a 12-year period. In all, 298 patients with primary oesophageal cancer underwent resection between March 1979 and December 1991. Four patients had a three-stage oesophagogastrectomy, 27 a thoracoabdominal oesophagogastrectomy and 267 a Lewis procedure. Dysphagia was the predominant presenting symptom. The duration of symptoms was not related to the stage of disease. Before diagnosis, 52 per cent of patients tolerated symptoms for 2–4 months. Adenocarcinoma was found in 180 tumours and squamous cell carcinoma in 103. Half the patients had evidence of metastatic spread at the time of laparotomy or thoracotomy. The 30-day mortality rate was 10 per cent and the overall actuarial 5-year survival rate of all patients 23 per cent. The actuarial 5-year survival rate of patients without lymph node involvement was 39 per cent compared with 17 per cent for those with positive nodes (P < 0·05). Five of eight patients who had anastomotic leakage died. The almost unselected nature of this series, coupled with the favourable results of oesophagectomy, support the contention that resection remains the preferred mode of treatment for carcinoma of the oesophagus of all histological types.