In the past two decades, substantial progress has been made in the adjuvant management of colorectal cancer. Chemotherapy has improved overall survival in patients with node-positive (N+) disease. In contrast with colon cancer, which has a low incidence of local recurrence, patients with rectal cancer have a higher incidence requiring the addition of pelvic radiation therapy (chemoradiation). Patients with rectal cancer have a number of unique management considerations: for example, the role of short-course radiation, whether postoperative adjuvant chemotherapy is necessary for all patients, and if the type of surgery following chemoradiation should be based on the response rate. More accurate imaging techniques and/or molecular markers may help identify patients with positive pelvic nodes to reduce the chance of overtreatment with preoperative therapy. Will more effective systemic agents both improve the results of radiation as well as modify the need for pelvic radiation? This review will address these and other controversies specific to patients with rectal cancer.
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