BACKGROUND: Strategies for the effective application of palliative procedures are infrequently standardized and incompletely understood. The effect on patient outcome as determined by elements such as resolution of chief complaints, quality of life, pain control, morbidity of therapy, and resource utilization should predominate decisions regarding surgical palliative care. METHODS: Articles published between 1990 and 1996 on the surgical palliation of cancer were identified by a MEDLINE search and reviewed for designated parameters considered important for good palliative care. RESULTS: A total of 348 citations were included. Entries considered these fundamental elements: cost (2%); pain control (12%); quality of life (17%); need to repeat the intervention (59%); morbidity and mortality (61%); survival (64%); and physiologic response (69%). Established methods for quality of life and pain assessment were sporadically utilized. CONCLUSIONS: In the current surgical literature, there is uncommon reporting of the range of data required to recommend sound palliative surgical choices.