The prognosis among patients diagnosed with oesophageal cancer is poor with an overall 5-year survival close to 5% in most countries. Improved diagnostic and surgical strategies might influence the survival, however. We investigated the observed and relative survival among all patients in Sweden diagnosed with oesophageal adenocarcinoma (n = 1,441) or squamous cell carcinoma (n = 6395) from 1961–1996 with follow-up to December 1997. Observed survival rates were calculated by the life-table method. Relative survival rates were computed as the ratio of the observed to the expected survival. The expected survival was inferred from the survival among the entire Swedish population in the same age, sex and calendar year strata. The 5-year observed survival rate for adenocarcinoma increased from a stable figure close to 4% during the entire period 1961–1989 to 10.5% during 1990–1996. Similarly, the 5-year relative survival rate was stable around 5% during 1961–1989, but during 1990–1996 the survival was increased to 13.7%. For squamous cell carcinoma, the survival improved slightly by each decade, starting with 3.8% 5-year observed survival in 1961–1969 to 7.0% during 1990–1996. Similarly, the 5-year relative survival improved from 5.0% to 8.9% during the study period. In conclusion, the survival rates for both oesophageal adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma have increased significantly during the 1990s compared to those in the previous 3 decades (p < 0.001). © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.