In an effort to determine the patterns of failure and survival of rectosigmoid and rectal cancer, a retrospective review of 168 patients who underwent potentially curative surgery at the New England Deaconess Hospital was performed. The 5-year actuarial survival for the entire group was 67%. Survival rates decreased with increasing penetration of the bowel wall by tumor and the presence of lymph node metastasis, but only the latter reached statistical significance. Those patients who underwent an abdominoperineal resection also experienced a significant decrease in survival compared to a low anterior resection. Patterns of failure, expressed as the actuarial incidence of first failure at 5 years, were examined by stage. With the exception of stages B3 and C3, there was a trend towards increased abdominal, distant, and total failure with increasing bowel wall penetration by tumor. A similar trend was seen in local failure in those patients with positive nodes. Knowledge of these data may help identify those patients who may benefit most from adjuvant therapy.