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The role of palliative surgical resection in patients presenting with locally advanced or metastatic colorectal cancer (CRC) is unclear. Resection is often limited to symptomatic management of bleeding, obstruction, perforation or for relief of pain, in patients with an adequate performance status and an expected life span of over several weeks. An exploratory analysis to evaluate the influence of a palliative surgical resection on survival outcome in patients with advanced CRC is reported.A retrospective review of medical records of all patients diagnosed with advanced CRC at our institution between the years 1998 and 2003 was undertaken. Tumour registry data were reviewed to identify age, gender, modalities of therapy [i.e. surgery (S), chemotherapy (C), radiation] and overall survival. IRB approval was obtained for this study.One hundred and eighty-five patients were identified. Median age was 67 years (range 30–99). M:F ratio was 1:1. Sixty-two per cent of patients (115/185) underwent a palliative surgical intervention. Median survival of patients who underwent S and those that did not undergo S was 22 and 3 months respectively (P < 0.0001). Forty-eight per cent of patients (79/184) underwent systemic C. Median survival of patients who received C + S, and patients who received C alone was 30 and 15 months respectively (P < 0.0004). Fifty-one per cent of patients who underwent S, received C; 30% of patients who did not undergo S, received C. Chemotherapy data were available on 46 of 79 patients. Patients treated with S + C, and C without S, received a median of 9 and 6 months of therapy respectively. The median number of regimens used were similar in both.These exploratory data suggest a positive influence of a palliative resection performed during the disease course of patients with advanced CRC. The increased frequency of utilization and the more prolonged duration of C in the surgically treated patients may in part contribute to this improved survival. This may also be reflective of performance status at the time of diagnosis. Future trials enrolling patients with advanced CRC should prospectively stratify for surgical intervention to further clarify the influence of this modality on the outcome of systemic therapy in this disease.