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Rectal cancer surgery has been characterized by a high incidence of local recurrence, an occurrence which influences survival negatively. In Norway there was a growing recognition that local recurrence rates were related to surgeon performance and that surgeons applying a standardized surgical technique in the form of total mesorectal excision could achieve better results. This contrasts with the prevailing argument voiced by many opinion leaders that local recurrence rates and possibly survival rates can only be improved by adjuvant or neoadjuvant treatment strategies. The Norwegian Rectal Cancer Project—initiated in 1993—aimed at improving the outcome of patients with rectal cancer by implementing total mesorectal excision as the standard rectal resection technique.This observational national cohort study covers all new patients (3,319) with rectal cancer from a population of 4.5 million treated between November 1993 and August 1997. The main outcome measures were local recurrence, survival, and postoperative mortality and morbidity rates. The technique of total mesorectal excision was compared with conventional surgery.The proportion of patients undergoing total mesorectal excision was 78 percent in 1994, increasing to 92 percent in 1997. The observed local recurrence rate for patients undergoing a curative resection was 6 percent in the group treated by total mesorectal excision and 12 percent in the conventional surgery group. Four-year survival rate was 73 percent after total mesorectal excision and 60 percent after conventional surgery. Postoperative mortality rate was 3 percent and the anastomotic dehiscence rate was 10 percent. Radiotherapy was given to 5 percent and chemotherapy to 3 percent of the patients in the curative resection group.A refinement of the surgical resection technique for rectal cancer can be achieved on a national level, the technique of total mesorectal excision can be widely distributed, and surgery alone can give good results.