PURPOSE: This study was designed to evaluate the down-staging effect and acute toxicity of preoperative radiation and chemoradiation for primary adenocarcinoma of the rectum. METHODS: The results of pretreatment staging with transrectal ultrasound and computed tomography were compared with final histologic stage in 260 consecutive patients who underwent neoadjuvant therapy and proctectomy for primary adenocarcinoma of the rectum. Patients underwent short-course radiation (2,000 cGy in five fractions), long-course radiation (4,500 cGy in 25 fractions), or chemoradiation (4,500 cGy in 25 fractions with concurrent chemotherapy). RESULTS: Down-staging of one or more T stages occurred in 116 of 260 (45 percent) patients overall (short-course radiation 34/82 (42 percent), long-course radiation 55/122 (45 percent), chemoradiation 27/56 (48 percent), P = not significant). Down-staging of one or more N stages occurred in 85 of 178 (48 percent) patients overall (short-course radiation 12/45 (27 percent), long-course radiation 49/86 (57 percent), chemoradiation 24/47 (51 percent), P = 0.003). Complete pathologic response was observed in 16 of 260 (6 percent) patients overall (short-course radiation 4/82 (5 percent), long-course radiation 5/122 (4 percent), chemoradiation 7/56 (13 percent), P = 0.08). Resection with negative margins (distal, proximal, and radial) was achieved in 211 of 227 patients (93 percent) in whom complete radial margin data were available. Permanent stomas were created in 35 percent of patients; temporary stomas were created in 15 percent. Thirty-three Grade 3 or 4 toxicities occurred in 22 of 260 (8 percent) patients overall during neoadjuvant therapy. Toxicity was more frequent in patients receiving chemoradiation (14/56; 25 percent) and long-course radiation (8/122; 7 percent) than in those receiving short-course radiation (0/82; 0 percent), P < 0.0001. Perioperative complications occurred in 93 patients overall (36 percent). The postoperative mortality rate was 0.4 percent (1/260). There was no significant difference in the complication rate between patients treated with short-course radiation (26/82; 32 percent), long-course radiation (46/122; 36 percent), and chemoradiation (21/56; 38 percent). CONCLUSION: Neoadjuvant therapy for adenocarcinoma of the rectum is well tolerated and can produce substantial down-staging and a high curative resection rate. Chemoradiation can achieve high complete pathologic response rates, although toxicity during neoadjuvant therapy is greater than for radiation alone. Short-course radiation can achieve down-staging of both T stage and N stage.