Background Obtaining insight into patients' preferences is important to optimize cancer care. We investigated patients' preferences for surgical management of esophageal cancer. Methods We conducted a discrete choice experiment among adult patients who had undergone esophagectomy for adenocarcinoma or squamous cell cancer of the esophagus. Patients' preferences were quantified with regression analysis using scenarios based on five aspects: risk of in-hospital mortality, risk of persistent symptoms, chance of 5-year survival, risk of surgical and non-surgical complications, and hospital volume of esophageal cancer surgery. Results The response rate was 68 % (104/142). All aspects proved to influence patients' preferences (p < 0.05). Persisting gastrointestinal symptoms and 5-year survival were the most important attributes, but preferences varied between patients. On average, patients were willing to trade-off 9.5 % (CI 2.4-16.6 %) 5-year survival chance to obtain a surgical treatment with 30 % lower risk of gastrointestinal symptoms, or 8.1 % (CI 4.0-12.2 %) 5-year survival chance for being treated in a high instead of a low-volume hospital. Conclusions Patients are willing to trade-off some 5-year survival chance to achieve an improvement in early outcomes. Given the preference heterogeneity among participants, the present study underlines the importance of a patient-tailored approach when discussing prognosis and treatment.