Oncologists disagree if chemotherapy in advanced cancer can improve quality of life (QoL), to prolong duration of life, or both. The objective of this study was to clarify the main treatment intention of palliative chemotherapy (PCT): the prolongation of life (PoL); or QoL. Randomized controlled clinical trials of PCT in advanced colorectal cancer that included HRQoL assessment were selected from PubMed and reviewed. Authors' conclusions were based on both PoL- and QoL-related outcomes. However, if PoL and QoL outcomes of the experimental arm were opposite, which was the case in 13 out of 28 trials, the authors generally based their conclusion on PoL outcomes. Authors' conclusions focused mainly on Pol.-related outcomes, while QoL-related outcomes were of overriding importance in only 1/28 case. QoL can therefore not be considered as the main outcome of PCT. The review shows that in the context of chemotherapy in advanced colorectal cancer, 'palliative' refers to a life-prolonging intention, whereas within palliative care it refers to an improvement in QoL. (c) 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.