This study was performed to assess the efficacy and safety of docetaxel, cisplatin and fluorouracil combination in patients with unresectable locally advanced oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma. Treatment consisted of docetaxel 60 mg m(-2), cisplatin 75 mg m(-2) on day 1 and fluorouracil 750 mg m(-2) day(-1) on days 2-5, repeated every 3 weeks for three cycles, followed by carboplatin 100 mg m(-2) week(-1) for 5 weeks and concurrent radiotherapy (45 Gy in 25 fractions, 5 days week(-1)). After radiotherapy, eligible patients either underwent an oesophagectomy or received high dose rate endoluminal brachytherapy (HDR-EBT). Thirty-one out of 37 enrolled patients completed the planned chemotherapy and 30 completed chemoradiation. After completion of chemotherapy, 49% (95% CI: 32.2-66.2) had a clinical response. Twelve patients (32%) underwent a resection, which was radical in 60% (postoperative mortality: 0%). A pathological complete response was documented in four patients (11% of enrolled, 30% of resected). The median survival was 10.8 months (95% CI: 8.1-12.4), and the 1- and 2-year survival rates were 35.1 and 18.9%, respectively. Grade 3-4 toxicities were neutropoenia 32%, anaemia 11%, non-neutropoenic infections 18%, diarrhoea 6% and oesophagitis 5%. Nine patients (24%) developed a tracheo-oesophageal fistula during treatment. Even if the addition of docetaxel to cisplatin and 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) seems to be more active than the cisplatin and 5-FU combination, an incremental improvement in survival is not seen, and the toxicity observed in this study population is of concern. In order to improve the prognosis of these patients, new drugs, combinations and strategies with a better therapeutic index need to be identified.