Background: Traditional teaching maintains that patients with primary colorectal adenocarcinoma require timely resection to prevent bleeding, perforation, or obstruction. The true benefits of primary tumor resection remain undocumented for patients presenting with metastatic disease, however. We postulated that resection of primary colorectal tumors could be avoided safely in a select population of asymptomatic colorectal cancer patients presenting with incurable stage IV disease.
Methods: A retrospective review of the Vanderbilt University Hospital tumor registry was performed for the years 1985 to 1997. During this period, 955 patients presented for management of primary colorectal cancer. From this group, all patients with stage IV disease at the time of diagnosis were identified. Patients who initially underwent resection of their primary lesion were included in the resection group; those who underwent initial nonoperative primary tumor management were included in the nonresection group. Data were obtained regarding age, extent of disease, nonsurgical therapy, tumor-specific complications, and palliative surgical procedures. Surgery-free survival and overall survival were analyzed using the Kaplan-Meier method. For patients with liver metastases, hepatic tumor burden was defined as either H1 (<25% parenchymal replacement), H2 (25% to 50%), or H3 (>50%) disease.
Results: Sixty-six patients were included in the resection group, and 23 patients with intact asymptomatic primary colorectal lesions were included in the nonresection group. Among patients with hepatic metastases, most of the patients in both groups had H1 disease. Ten patients in the resection group and 3 patients in the nonresection group presented with exclusively extrahepatic metastases. In the nonresection group, primary therapy included chemotherapy in 13 patients, external beam radiation therapy in 1 patient, and combination chemoradiation in 9 patients. The median survival in the nonresection group was 16.6 months. The 2-year actuarial survival was 18%, and the surgery-free survival was 91.3%. Only 2 of 23 patients (8.7%) managed without resection eventually developed obstruction at the primary tumor site requiring emergent diversion. There were no episodes of tumor-related hemorrhage or perforation. For the resection group, the operative morbidity was 30.3%, and the perioperative mortality rate was 4.6%. The median survival in the resection group was 14.5 months (P = 0.59, log-rank test vs. nonresection group).
Conclusions: Selected patients with asymptomatic primary colorectal tumors who present with incurable metastatic disease may safely avoid resection of their primary lesions, with an anticipated low rate of hemorrhage, perforation, or obstruction before death from systemic disease. No survival advantage is gained by resection of an asymptomatic primary lesion in the setting of incurable stage IV colorectal cancer.