BACKGROUND Complete surgical (R0) resection remains the only potentially curative intervention for patients with localised gastric cancer. To achieve a curative resection, patients may require complex operations with resection of contiguous organs. The aim of this study was to assess how the extent of surgical resection influenced morbidity, mortality and survival in an aged non-selected population with significant comorbid disease. PATIENTS AND METHODS Data were extracted from the Scottish Audit of Gastric and Oesophageal Cancer (SAGOC), a prospective population-based audit of all oesophageal and gastric cancers in Scotland between 1997 and 1999 with a minimum of 1-year follow-up. RESULTS A total of 646 patients underwent surgical exploration for gastric cancer. A significantly higher incidence of chest infections (18.5 vs 11%, p< 0.05) and anastomotic leaks (14.3 vs 2.2%, p< 0.05) were associated with total gastrectomy (n=168) when compared to distal gastrectomy (n=272) resections. A 9.2% mortality rate and a 60% 1-year survival were associated with gastric resection alone. Removal of the spleen (n=131), pancreas (n=30) or liver resection (n=5) was associated with a significantly higher mortality rates, 18.3, 23.3 and 40%, respectively (p< 0.05), and significantly lower 1-year survival rates, 50.9, 39.1 and 20%, respectively (p< 0.05). CONCLUSIONS The risk of more extensive resection is not balanced by improved survival in this population based series. Extending gastric resection to involve contiguous organs should be confined to highly selected cases.