A retrospective study of 310 patients with carcinoma of the head of the pancreas or periampullary region was performed. Preoperative bile drainage by placement of a stent reduced the number of postoperative complications, especially bleeding (P = 0.03). The operative mortality rate was nil in patients with periampullary cancer aged under 70 years and 23 per cent in those over 70 years of age (P < 0.001). In the last 2 years of the study, the mortality rate following resection decreased to 2 per cent. Tumour-containing resection margins did not influence survival after resection (P = 0.48). Tumour dimension of pancreatic and periampullary cancer and the presence of tumour in locoregional lymph nodes (N1a) resected with the primary tumour in cancer of the head of the pancreas were of no prognostic value. Following palliative resection of carcinoma of the pancreatic head, median survival was significantly better than when no resection was performed (10.1 versus 3.9 months, P < 0.001). In conclusion, even palliative resection may benefit some patients. Preoperative bile drainage is indicated in those with jaundice. Resection should be performed, irrespective of tumour size, provided that the unit's operative mortality rate is sufficiently low.