Following neoadjuvant chemoradiotherapy (CRT) and interval proctectomy, 15–20 per cent of patients are found to have a pathological complete response (pCR) to combined multimodal therapy, but controversy persists about whether this yields a survival benefit. This systematic review evaluated current evidence regarding long-term oncological outcomes in patients found to have a pCR to neoadjuvant CRT.


Three major databases (PubMed, MEDLINE and the Cochrane Library) were searched. The systematic review included all original articles reporting long-term outcomes in patients with rectal cancer who had a pCR to neoadjuvant CRT, published in English, from January 1950 to March 2011.


A total of 724 studies were identified for screening. After applying inclusion and exclusion criteria, 16 studies involving 3363 patients (1263 with pCR and 2100 without) were included (mean age 60 years, 65·0 per cent men). Some 73·4 per cent had a sphincter-saving procedure. Mean follow-up was 55·5 (range 40–87) months. For patients with a pCR, the weighted mean local recurrence rate was 0·7 (range 0–2·6) per cent. Distant failure was observed in 8·7 per cent. Five-year overall and disease-free survival rates were 90·2 and 87·0 per cent respectively. Compared with non-responders, a pCR was associated with fewer local recurrences (odds ratio (OR) 0·25; P = 0·002) and less frequent distant failure (OR 0·23; P < 0·001), with a greater likelihood of being alive (OR 3·28; P = 0·001) and disease-free (OR 4·33, P < 0·001) at 5 years.


A pCR following neoadjuvant CRT is associated with excellent long-term survival, with low rates of local recurrence and distant failure. Copyright © 2012 British Journal of Surgery Society Ltd. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.