BackgroundPathologic complete response (pCR) is associated with better prognosis and guides management for patients with advanced rectal cancer. Response rates vary between series for unclear reasons. We examine whether the thoroughness of pathologic assessment explains differences in pCR rates.MethodsWe retrospectively reviewed pathology reports from patients with stage II/III rectal cancer who underwent chemoradiation and resection in a prospective, multicenter trial. We utilized a novel measure for the thoroughness of pathologic assessment by dividing residual tumor size by the number of cassettes evaluated (tumor size to cassette ratio, TSCR), and evaluated whether TSCR is associated with pCR. We validated our findings using a separate cohort.ResultsFrom the trial cohort, 71 of 247 (29%) patients achieved pCR. The pCR rate ranged from 0 to 45% and mean TSCR ranged 0.29 to 0.87 across 12 institutions. Within each institution, a lower TSCR was associated with pCR, demonstrating a higher degree of thoroughness used for tumors that achieved pCR. Moreover, across all samples, low TSCR was independently associated with pCR on multivariable analysis. This finding was corroborated in a separate cohort of 201 tumors evaluated by five pathologists; each pathologist had a lower mean TSCR for pCR calls compared with non-pCR calls. However, the mean TSCR for an institution was not associated with its overall pCR rate.ConclusionsPathologists assess rectal cancers that have responded significantly to neoadjuvant therapy more thoroughly. Thoroughness does not appear to explain differences in pCR rates between institutions. Our results suggest pCR is not a sampling artifact.