BACKGROUND: Locally advanced rectal cancer is usually treated with preoperative chemoradiation. After chemoradiation and surgery, 15-27% of the patients have no residual viable tumour at pathological examination, a pathological complete response (pCR). This study established whether patients with pCR have better long-term outcome than do those without pCR. METHODS: In PubMed, Medline, and Embase we identified 27 articles, based on 17 different datasets, for long-term outcome of patients with and without pCR. 14 investigators agreed to provide individual patient data. All patients underwent chemoradiation and total mesorectal excision. Primary outcome was 5-year disease-free survival. Kaplan-Meier survival functions were computed and hazard ratios (HRs) calculated, with the Cox proportional hazards model. Subgroup analyses were done to test for effect modification by other predicting factors. Interstudy heterogeneity was assessed for disease-free survival and overall survival with forest plots and the Q test. FINDINGS: 484 of 3105 included patients had a pCR. Median follow-up for all patients was 48 months (range 0-277). 5-year crude disease-free survival was 83.3% (95% CI 78.8-87.0) for patients with pCR (61/419 patients had disease recurrence) and 65.6% (63.6-68.0) for those without pCR (747/2263; HR 0.44, 95% CI 0.34-0.57; p<0.0001). The Q test and forest plots did not suggest significant interstudy variation. The adjusted HR for pCR for failure was 0.54 (95% CI 0.40-0.73), indicating that patients with pCR had a significantly increased probability of disease-free survival. The adjusted HR for disease-free survival for administration of adjuvant chemotherapy was 0.91 (95% CI 0.73-1.12). The effect of pCR on disease-free survival was not modified by other prognostic factors. INTERPRETATION: Patients with pCR after chemoradiation have better long-term outcome than do those without pCR. pCR might be indicative of a prognostically favourable biological tumour profile with less propensity for local or distant recurrence and improved survival. FUNDING: None.