The objective of this study was to compare the treatment outcomes of surgical versus chemotherapeutic interventions for the management of intestinal obstruction secondary to metastatic epithelial ovarian cancer. A retrospective analysis of 39 patients with epithelial ovarian cancer who had 98 events of intestinal obstruction was performed. A medical records review of patients treated for advanced ovarian cancer from 1973 to 2003 was conducted. Time from treatment to obstruction, complications, and predictors of outcome were analyzed. Mean time from diagnosis of cancer to first obstruction was 38 months (range, 7-234 months). Of 39 patients with obstruction, 5% were stage I, 2% stage II, 85% stage III, and 8% stage IV. Prior to first obstruction, the median number of prior surgeries was 2 and chemotherapy regimens 3. Sites of the 98 events of obstruction were small intestine, 79 (81%); large intestine, 8 (8%); and combined small and large intestines, 11 (11%). The mean time to re-obstruction was 6.4 months (0-24) for chemotherapy, 5.1 months (0-40) for surgery, and 1.9 months (0-15) for supportive care. The mean hospital stays were 7 days (2-10) for chemotherapy, 18 days (3-50) for surgery, and 7 days (0-20) for supportive care. There were 4 major complications in the chemotherapy patients, 11 in the surgical patients, and 2 in the supportive only patients. The only significant factor predictive of > or =6 month obstruction-free period was prior response to platinum-based chemotherapy. Of the 13 patients with a response to chemotherapeutic or surgical treatment, 46% had an initial response to platinum-based chemotherapy, while 27% of 22 patients who re-obstructed in <6 months were platinum sensitive. In this retrospective analysis of selected patients, surgery and chemotherapy were found to have similar outcomes. The surgical approach had higher morbidity. The best predictor of either treatment's effectiveness is tumor sensitivity to platinum-based chemotherapeutic agents (P= 0.168).