Lymph node metastasis in patients with early gastric cancer was evaluated prospectively to determine whether radical (D2) lymphadenectomy is appropriate in such cases. Twenty-eight (18 per cent) of 156 patients having surgery for gastric cancer had early disease. Lymph node metastasis was found in 12 of the 28 patients. Metastasis was more likely in submucosal than mucosal early gastric cancer (nine of 14 versus three of 14; P = 0.024, Fisher's exact test). In two of three patients with metastasis at the N2 level, the N1 nodes were entirely clear. This study shows a higher incidence of lymph node metastasis than has been reported previously in both the UK and Japan. The high incidence of lymph node metastasis in early gastric cancer supports the continuing use of radical lymphadenectomy in patients who are fit for such major surgery.