AIM: To demonstrate the oncologic outcomes of low rectal cancer and to clarify the risk factors for survival, focusing particularly on the type of surgery performed. METHODS: Data from patients with low rectal carcinomas who underwent surgery, either sphincter-preserving surgery (SPS) or abdominoperineal resection (APR), at The First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-sen University in China from August 1994 to December 2005 were retrospectively analyzed. RESULTS: Of 331 patients with low rectal cancer, 159 (48.0%) were treated with SPS. A higher incidence of positive resection margins and a higher 5-year cumulative local recurrence rate (14.7% vs 6.8%, P = 0.041) were observed in patients after APR compared to SPS. The five-year overall survival (OS) was 54.6% after APR and 66.8% after SPS (P = 0.018), and the 5-year disease-free survival (DFS) was 52.9% after APR and 65.5% after SPS (P = 0.013). In multivariate analysis, poor OS and DFS were significantly related to positive resection margins, pT3-4, and pTNM III-IV but not to the type of surgery. CONCLUSION: Despite a higher rate of positive resection margins after APR, the type of surgery was not identified as an independent risk factor for survival.