BACKGROUND: In the West, the subsite incidence of gastric cancer has changed in recent decades, with cancer of the cardia increasing in incidence and that of the more distal stomach decreasing. NW Iran has a very high incidence of upper gastrointestinal cancer and we have examined the anatomical site specific incidence in this geographical region. METHOD AND MATERIALS: Of 33 718 patients who visited our clinic from March 2000 to Jan 2003, 3119 (9.3%) with persistent upper gastrointestinal symptoms underwent upper gastrointestinal fibreoptic endoscopy. Exact tumour site, subsite, and axial view were determined. Demographic data including age, sex, and place of residence were assessed. Using matched data from the cancer registry and endoscopic survey, age standardised rates (ASR) for all subsites were calculated. RESULTS: Upper gastrointestinal cancer was diagnosed histologically in 499 patients (16.0%). The most frequent site was the gastric cardia (126 (25.3%)) followed by the oesophageal body (90 (18.0%)), antrum (82 (16.4%)), corpus (74 (14.8%)), distal oesophagus (57 (11.4%)), gastro-oesophageal junction (47 (9.4%)), and proximal oesophagus (22 (4.4%)). From axial views of the cardia, 51.4% and 6.8% of tumours were found to originate from the lesser and greater curve, respectively. ASR for gastric cancer were 51.2 in males and 15.4 in females. Cardia cancer with ASR of 26.4 in males and 8.6 in females was the major component of gastric cancer. CONCLUSION: NW Iran is a geographical region with a very high incidence of cardia cancer and with the great majority originating from the right side of the cardia. This suggests a locally acting luminal carcinogen. Studying the aetiology of this cancer in NW Iran is likely to increase our understanding of the rising incidence of this cancer throughout the Western world.