The rapidly rising incidence of esophageal adenocarcinomas in the United States and western Europe remains unexplained. Most persons who develop the disease have had long-standing gastroesophageal reflux symptoms with concomitant Barrett's metaplasia. They are, therefore, potentially identifiable for endoscopic screening and cancer surveillance, which should facilitate the early detection of these tumors. We undertook these analyses to determine the extent to which the opportunity for early diagnosis and treatment of esophageal adenocarcinomas has been realized in the US. Specifically, using data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program of the US National Cancer Institute, we examined changes in stage of disease at diagnosis and in survival between 1973 and 1991 and investigated patient characteristics as predictors of survival. Improvements in stage at diagnosis and in survival between 1973 and 1991 were minor and clinically insignificant; overall five-year survival never exceeded 10 percent. Stage of disease at diagnosis was the strongest determinant of subsequent survival; five-year survival with patients with in situ tumors was 68.2 percent. This survival advantage persisted up to 15 years after diagnosis and was independent of other prognostic factors. We conclude that the opportunity for reduction in esophageal cancer mortality has been largely unrealized in the US. In light of the increasing incidence of esophageal adenocarcinoma, efforts should be devoted to identifying those at highest risk of developing Barrett's metaplasia and subsequent adenocarcinoma, and to developing cost-effective primary prevention and cancer surveillance methods targetting them.