Staging criteria for thoracic malignancies are based on survival groupings that allow the stage groups to be used as prognosticators for cancer treatment. Definitive staging of esophageal cancer facilitates allocation of patients to appropriate treatment regimens according to each patient's stage. Existing noninvasive staging methods are imperfect in detecting abdominal and thoracic lymph node metastases in patients with esophageal cancer. Thoracoscopy is an excellent means for staging the chest and mediastinum. We have used thoracoscopic lymph node staging and laparoscopic lymph node staging for esophageal cancer since 1992. Thoracoscopy was performed in 45 patients with biopsy specimen-proved carcinoma of the esophagus. Laparoscopy was done in the last 20 patients. Laparoscopic-assisted feeding jejunostomies were performed in patients with obstructive symptoms. Directed liver biopsies were performed if lesions were present. Thoracoscopy was aborted in three patients because of adhesions. Thoracic lymph node stage was NO in 40 patients and Nl in 3. Celiac lymph nodes were normal in 14 patients and abnormal in 6. Esophageal resection was performed in 30 patients after thoracoscopic lymph node staging; 18 of these underwent laparoscopic lymph node staging. Thoracoscopic staging showed NO lymph node status in 28 patients and Nl in 2. Two of these NO patients (7%) were found at resection to have paraesophageal lymph involvement (Nl). Thoracoscopic lymph node staging was accurate in detecting the status of thoracic lymph nodes in 28 of 30 cases (93%). Laparoscopic staging found normal celiac nodes in 13 patients and abnormal lymph nodes in 5. After esophagectomy, final pathologic finding of the 13 NO patients was NO in 12 patients and Nl in 1 patient. Thus, laparoscopic lymph node staging was accurate in detecting lymph node status in 17 of 18 patients (94%). Six of 20 patients undergoing laparoscopy had unsuspected celiac axis lymph node involvement missed by standard noninvasive techniques. Three percent of thoracic lymph nodes and 17% of celiac lymph nodes were downstaged after preoperative chemoradiotherapy. Thoracoscopic and laparoscopic lymph node staging are more accurate than existing staging methods.