We asked what preoperative radiotherapy/chemoradiotherapy (PRT/PCRT) has brought to patients in terms of perioperative and long-term outcomes over the past decades. A systematic review and meta-analysis was conducted using PubMed, Embase and Web of Science databases. All original comparative studies published in English that were related to PRT/PCRT and surgical resection and which analyzed survival, postoperative and quality of life outcomes were included. Data synthesis and statistical analysis were carried out using Stata software. Data from 106 comparative studies based on 80 different trials enrolling 41,121 patients were included in our study. Based on our overall analyses, PRT/PCRT significantly improved patients' local recurrence-free survival (LRFS), but neither overall survival (OS) nor metastasis-free survival (MFS) showed improvement. In addition, PRT significantly increased the postoperative morbidity and mortality but PCRT did not have a significant effect. Furthermore, PRT/PCRT significantly increased the risk of postoperative wound complications but not anastomotic leakage and bowel obstruction. Our comprehensive subgroup analyses further supported the aforementioned results. Meanwhile, long-term anorectal symptoms (impaired squeeze pressures, use of pads, incontinence and urgency) and erectile dysfunction were also significantly increased in patients after PRT/PCRT. The benefits of PRT/PCRT as applied over the last several decades have not been sufficient to improve OS. Metastases of primary tumor and postoperative adverse effects were the two primary obstacles for an improved OS. In fact, the greatest advantage of PRT/PCRT is still local tumor control and a significantly improved LRFS.