Retrovirally induced immunosuppression may elevate the incidence of chemically induced cancers. A proposed hypothesis to explain this relationship is the increased free radical activity observed during retroviral infection and carcinogen activation. We previously found that vitamin E retarded growth of esophageal tumors accompanied by reductions of free radical products. This study investigated the contribution that retroviral immunosuppression has on esophageal cancer induced by the carcinogen N-nitrosomethylbenzylamine (NMBzA), and the response that increased levels of dietary vitamin E has on this induced carcinogenesis. Female C57BL/6 mice received NMBzA or vehicle (corn oil) i.p. weekly for 3 weeks. Then some of the mice were infected with LP-BM5 murine retrovirus and fed diets containing 30 IU vitamin E or 172 IU vitamin E/kg of diet. As an assessment of free radical activity, exhaled ethane was measured prior to killing the animals at 26 weeks. Esophagi from the various mice groups were assessed for size and frequency of tumors. Livers homogenates were analyzed for vitamins A and E, lipid fluorescence, conjugated dienes and malondialdehyde. Hepatic levels of vitamin A and E were decreased (P < 0.05) and indices of lipid peroxidation were greater (P < 0.05) in NMBzA-treated mice relative to controls. Lipid peroxidation and serum transaminases (ALT and AST) were greatest in mice given NMBzA and infected with the retroviruses. Incidence of esophageal tumors were also greatest in the NMBzA-treated, immunocompromised animals. Mice fed vitamin E-supplemented diets showed increased (P < 0.05) hepatic concentrations of vitamin E and vitamin A, decreased activities of serum transaminases, decreased indices of lipid peroxidation, and decreased size and frequency of esophageal tumors in both the immunocompromised and non-immunocompromised mice. These results suggest that vitamin E plays an antioxidant function that retards the incidence of esophageal cancers in immunocompromised and non-immunocompromised animals.