We retrospectively investigated whether the number of involved lymph nodes and the radiation therapy for recurrence affect survival in patients with thoracic esophageal carcinoma. Eighty-nine patients underwent surgical resection and reconstruction for thoracic esophageal squamous cell carcinoma beyond the mucosal layer. Patients were classified into three groups: group 1 comprised 40 patients without lymph node involvement; group 2 comprised 34 patients with 1-3 positive nodes; and group 3 comprised 15 patients with > or = 4 involved lymph nodes. The 3-year and 5-year survival rates were 77.5% and 73.2% respectively in group 1, 64.8% and 55.8% respectively in group 2, and 28.1% and 0% respectively in group 3. The mean survival time (MST) mean +/- SD of the patients in group 3 (772.1 +/- 146.2 days) was significantly shorter than that of patients in group 1 (3728.5 +/- 320.7 days, p < 0.0001) and group 2 (2330.4 +/- 344.3 days, p = 0.0130). The MST of the patients in group 2 was also significantly shorter than that of patients in group 1 (p = 0.0366). Patients with recurrent lymph nodes that were localized were treated effectively with radiation therapy. We conclude that the number of lymph node metastases influences survival in thoracic esophageal cancer. Early detection as well as radiation therapy for recurrent lymph node metastases is effective in improving long-term survival.