Chylothorax is an unusual complication after transhiatal esophagectomy (THE) and in the past 10 years has occurred in 11 of 320 patients (3%) undergoing this operation for diseases of the intrathoracic esophagus. Four patients had benign esophageal disease: scleroderma reflux esophagitis (1), caustic stricture (1), and achalasia (2), and each had undergone at least one previous esophageal operation. Seven patients had intrathoracic esophageal carcinoma--two upper-third, two middle-third, and three distal-third lesions. Excessive chest tube drainage more than 72 hours after THE was the standard presentation, and the diagnosis of chylothorax was confirmed by the administration of cream through the jejunostomy feeding tube placed routinely at operation. The character of the chest tube drainage changed from serous to opalescent. Aggressive treatment of this complication was the rule, and every patient underwent a thoracotomy between 2 to 14 days (average, 6 days) after the diagnosis was established. Cream was administered through the jejunostomy tube before operation, and in each case the thoracic duct injury was readily identified and controlled with suture ligatures. There were no deaths in this group, and there was one recurrence of the fistula that required reoperation; all patients were discharged from the hospital within 3 to 29 days (average, 10 days) after thoracic duct ligation. It is concluded that early recognition of a chylothorax after transhiatal esophagectomy with prompt transthoracic ligation of the injured duct results in a shorter overall hospitalization and lower morbidity and mortality from this complication. The traditional conservative management of chylothorax with intravenous hyperalimentation and no or low-residue enteral feedings has little place in this nutritionally depleted patient population.