We analysed data from 49 cancer registries in 18 European countries over the period 1988-1999 to delineate time trends in cancer survival. Survival increased in Europe over the study period for all cancer sites that were considered. There were major survival increases in 5 year age-adjusted relative survival for prostate (from 58% to 79%), colon and rectum (from 48% to 54% men and women), and breast (from 74% to 83%). Improvements were also significant for stomach (from 22% to 24%), male larynx (from 62% to 64%), skin melanoma (from 78% to 83%), Hodgkin disease (from 77% to 83%), non-Hodgkin lymphoma (from 49% to 56%), leukaemias (from 37% to 42%), and for all cancers combined (from 34% to 39% in men, and from 52% to 59% in women). Survival did not change significantly for female larynx, lung, cervix or ovary. The largest increases in survival typically occurred in countries with the lowest survival, and contributed to the overall reduction of survival disparities across Europe over the study period. Differences in the extent of PSA testing and mammographic screening, and increasing use of colonoscopy and faecal blood testing together with improving cancer care are probably the major underlying reasons for the improvements in survival for cancers of prostate, breast, colon and rectum. The marked survival improvements in countries with poor survival may indicate that these countries have made efforts to adopt the new diagnostic procedures and the standardised therapeutic protocols in use in more affluent countries.