The EUROCARE study is a European Union project to collect survival data from population-based cancer registries and analyse them according to standardised procedures. We investigated and compared oesophageal and gastric cancer survival in 17 countries between 1985 and 1989. Time trends in survival over the 1978-1989 period were also investigated in 13 countries. The overall European 1-year relative survival rates were 33% for oesophageal cancer and 40% for gastric cancer. The corresponding 5-year relative survival rates were 10 and 21%, respectively. Important intercountry survival differences exist within Europe for oesophageal and gastric cancer. Taking the European average as the reference, the relative risk (RR) of death at 5 years was at least 30% higher in Denmark, Poland, Estonia and Slovenia for oesophageal cancer and in Denmark, England, Scotland and Poland for gastric cancer. In the other countries survival figures were close to the European average. Gender had little influence on survival, whilst age at diagnosis was inversely related to prognosis. There was a slight improvement between 1978 and 1989 in 5-year overall relative survival rates for both oesophageal cancer (RR = 0.80, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.72-0.90) and gastric cancer (RR = 0.88, 95% CI 0.82-0.94). Differences in quality of care and stage at diagnosis can explain in part the differences in survival found in the EUROCARE countries. Significant improvement in prognosis has still to be achieved.