As knowledge on the causation of cancers advances and new treatments are developed, early recognition and accurate diagnosis becomes increasingly important. This review focused on identifying factors influencing patient and primary care practitioner delay for upper gastrointestinal cancer. A systematic methodology was applied, including extensive searches of the literature published from 1970 to 2003, systematic data extraction, quality assessment and narrative data synthesis. Included studies were those evaluating factors associated with the time interval between a patient first noticing a cancer symptom and presenting to primary care, between a patient first presenting to primary care and being referred to secondary care, or describing an intervention designed to reduce those intervals. Twenty-five studies were included in the review. Studies reporting delay intervals demonstrated that the patient phase of delay was greater than the practitioner phase, whilst patient-related research suggests that recognition of symptom seriousness is more important than recognition of the presence of the symptom. The main factors related to practitioner delay were misdiagnosis, application and interpretation of tests, and the confounding effect of existing disease. Greater understanding of patient factors is required, along with evaluation of interventions to ensure appropriate diagnosis, examination and investigation.