Low anterior resection and abdominoperineal resection are the surgical techniques used most frequently in the treatment of rectal cancer. It is our hypothesis that selected patients with early T stage, well or moderate grade of differentiation, and small tumor size are good candidates for transanal excision in terms of minimal morbidity, low recurrence rate, and sphincter preservation. From January 1993 until August 2001 30 patients underwent transanal excision; three patients were excluded because they had histology other than adenocarcinoma. Factors analyzed included those related to the patient [age (years), gender, race, body mass index, and anal tone], tumor [size (cm), distance from the anal verge (cm), differentiation, and American Joint Committee on Cancer stage], and additional treatment. Median follow-up of the group was 40.7 months (range 0.6-99) and the primary end points were local and distant recurrence. Data are presented as mean (range). The median age of the group was 58.9 years (range 27-94); 52 per cent were female and 48 per cent were male. The mean body mass index was 25.9 (range 22.7-36.7). Preoperatively 81, 11, and 4 per cent of the patients had stage I, II, and III/IV cancer, respectively. Preoperative size of the tumor was 2.0 cm (1-3 cm), and distance from the anal verge was 5.0 cm (3-15 cm). Blood loss was 50 cm3 (5-200 cm 3), and there were no operative complications. Tumor differentiation levels were well (37%) and moderate (63%). All patients had negative margins. Additional treatment consisted of radiation therapy in seven patients (six postoperative and one preoperative). Chemotherapy was given to seven patients (six postoperative and one preoperative). The local recurrence rate was 7.4 per cent (two patients), and 3.7 per cent recurred distantly (one patient). Transanal excision of low rectal cancer in selected patients is an acceptable alternative to formal resection. Important selection criteria include early T stage, well or moderate differentiation, relatively small tumor size, and negative microscopic margins. The roles of radiation and chemotherapy remain controversial.