Watch and Wait: Is Surgery Always Necessary for Rectal Cancer?

Alexander T. Hawkins, Steven R. Hunt

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Despite decades of high-quality research, the treatment of rectal cancer remains a work in progress. The interplay between chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery is under constant rearrangement and refinement. Through this all, the desire to preserve the anal sphincters and quality of life remains at the forefront. In the past decade, standard of care for stage II or III rectal cancers in the USA has been neoadjuvant chemoradiation therapy (CRT) followed by radical surgical resection of the rectum. While timing and sequence of the CRT continues to evolve, surgical resection has remained essential in treatment. This stands in contrast to anal cancer, where surgery is reserved purely for salvage. This article describes a treatment strategy that attempts to treat rectal adenocarcinoma with CRT alone, reserving surgery for failure or salvage. Of the studies performed to date, a number are methodologically sound and show promise. However, the body of evidence has yet to reach a size to sway practitioners from the established trinity of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery. Interestingly, few trials administer post treatment full-dose systemic chemotherapy, which is the standard of care in patients undergoing surgical resection. Better identification of patients that will have complete cure from this approach, combined with long-term outcome data on salvage patients, is necessary for this therapy to be universally embraced.

Original languageEnglish
Article number22
JournalCurrent treatment options in oncology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2016


  • Chemotherapy
  • Complete clinical response
  • Complete pathologic response
  • Non-operative management
  • Radiation therapy
  • Rectal adenocarcinoma
  • Surgery
  • Watch and wait
  • Watchful waiting


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