BACKGROUND The rarity, delayed presentation, and diagnostic difficulty of small-bowel tumors prompted this study. STUDY DESIGN Charts were reviewed retrospectively for 85 patients with 89 small-bowel tumors (22 primary malignant, 23 primary benign, and 44 metastatic) over a 10-year period (1986-1996) at Louisiana State University Medical Center-Shreveport and two affiliated hospitals in Shreveport. RESULTS Of the primary malignant tumors, 10 carcinoids and 11 duodenal adenocarcinomas were identified. Most primary benign tumors were adenomatous or hyperplastic polyps, diagnosed by esophagogastroduodenoscopy. Metastatic tumors accounted for nearly 50% of all small-bowel tumors. Across all three tumor types, the most common presenting signs and symptoms were abdominal pain and nausea and vomiting. In addition, patients with benign tumors were more commonly presented with gastrointestinal hemorrhage, and those with metastatic tumors were more likely to present with obstruction. The mean interval from the onset of signs and symptoms to operation was 54 days for primary malignant tumors and 330 days for primary benign tumors. Esophagogastroduodenoscopy and computed tomography of the abdomen were occasionally helpful in diagnosis. Among the 22 primary malignant tumors, curative resections were performed in 11 patients (for 9 carcinoids and 2 adenocarcinomas) and palliative resections were performed in 10 patients (for 9 adenocarcinomas and 1 myxoliposarcoma). One patient had carcinomatosis from colon cancer and an incidentally discovered ileal carcinoid; this carcinoid was not included in this group of resections for primary malignant small-bowel tumors. All operations for 39 (of 44) patients with metastatic tumors were palliative. The remaining 5 (of 44) patients had metastatic duodenal cancer (confirmed by esophagogastroduodenoscopy or endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography with biopsy) and did not undergo laparotomy. Surgical complications occurred more commonly with metastatic than with primary malignant tumors. Patients with primary malignant tumors had a 5-year survival rate of 36%. CONCLUSIONS These findings demonstrate that small-bowel tumors are difficult to diagnose because of delayed presentation, nonspecific signs and symptoms, and lack of accurate diagnostic studies. If the overall survival of patients with small-bowel tumors is to be improved, clinicians must have a high index of suspicion and be willing to perform exploratory celiotomy early.