Background: Preoperative radiotherapy improves local control and survival in rectal cancer, but there are few reports on long-term morbidity. The aims of this study were to compare long-term morbidity and quality of life in patients undergoing rectal cancer surgery with or without preoperative radiotherapy.
Methods: A total of 252 patients, randomized within the two Stockholm trials on preoperative radiotherapy in rectal cancer, were alive at a mean of 15 years after surgery. Some 139 of these patients were available for follow-up by questionnaires and clinical examination. Questionnaires regarding medical history and quality of life were completed by all patients. All patients had a clinical examination, and those without a stoma underwent rigid sigmoidoscopy.
Results: Overall, patients who had preoperative radiotherapy experienced significantly more late complications than those who did not (69 versus 43 per cent; P = 0.002). This morbidity consisted mainly of cardiovascular disease (35 versus 19 per cent; P = 0.032), faecal incontinence (12 of 21 versus 11 of 42 patients having anterior resection; P = 0.013) and urinary incontinence (45 versus 27 per cent; P = 0.023). No significant differences between groups were found for hip or pelvic fractures, small bowel obstruction or global quality of life.
Conclusion: Preoperative short-course, high-dose radiotherapy in patients with rectal cancer increases the risk of anal and urinary dysfunction, and may lead to increased cardiovascular morbidity, at long-term follow-up.