The importance of genetic factors in the etiology of esophageal cancer is uncertain. We addressed the question of heredity in a population-based, nationwide case-control study conducted in Sweden during 1995 through 1997. The study involved 189 patients with esophageal adenocarcinoma, 262 with cardia adenocarcinoma, 167 with esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, and, for comparison, 820 control subjects. Familial occurrence of cancer was explored at face-to-face interviews. Logistic regression, with multivariate adjustment for potential confounders, was used to calculate odds ratios (ORs), which estimated relative risk. Occurrence of esophageal cancer among first-degree relatives did not increase the risk of adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. Neither were there any significant associations with familial occurrence of gastric cancer or other gastrointestinal tumors. The risk of cardia adenocarcinoma was moderately increased among persons with first-degree relatives with gastric cancer (OR, 1.6; 95% confidence interval, 1.0-2.6). Familial occurrence of any cancer was not associated with increased risks of any of the three studied tumors. In conclusion, heredity does not seem to contribute importantly to the occurrence of esophageal cancer of any histological type. A weak association between familial gastric cancer and the risk of cardia cancer may represent a genetic link.