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The clinical significance of lung nodules in patients with esophageal carcinoma has received little attention. Therefore, we carried out a retrospective detailed review of 116 consecutive cases of esophageal carcinoma, including 98 squamous cell cancers, seen at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center between 1984 and 1997. Seventy-four percent of our patients were black; it was not surprising therefore that 84% of our patients in this series had squamous cell cancers. Initially, chest radiographs, computed tomography (CT) scans, or thoracotomy showed solitary pulmonary nodules in 22 (19%) patients. A definitive diagnosis was established in 19 patients, including 15 (68%) benign nodules and 4 (18%) new primary lung carcinomas. Three (14%) nodules were indeterminate, but in no case could a solitary lung metastasis be identified. Radiographic evidence of multiple lung metastases was present, however, in 4 (3%) of 116 patients at diagnosis. Autopsies of six patients were later performed, and three showed multiple lung metastases; two of these patients had negative chest radiographs shortly before death. Our experience suggests that for a cohort of mostly squamous cell esophageal cancers, a solitary lung metastasis is rare at diagnosis; a solitary pulmonary nodule at this time likely represents a benign abnormality or primary lung cancer. Multiple pulmonary metastases are also very unusual at diagnosis, probably become increasingly common during the terminal phases of disease, and may be radiographically occult.