The question of how much effective progress against cancer is being made has been raised repeatedly during the last decade; one approach to evaluating such progress is represented by the analysis of mortality, which has been used by several researchers. Here we report mortality trends for 1970–90 for four age-groups, calculated for each 3-year period, and presented as the percentage change of the rate of the first period examined. Detailed graphs for each country and for the European Community as a whole are presented for ‘all cancers’, and for cancer of the colon-rectum, lung, breast and ovary. For other cancers (stomach, melanoma, uterus, testis and Hodgkin's disease), the graphs are presented only for the whole of the European Community. Variations in mortality are discussed, in terms of changes in incidence, efficacy and diffusion of prevention, as well as improvement in diagnosis and treatment.