BACKGROUND: The split-course schedule of chemo-radiation for anal cancer is controversial. METHODS: Eighty-four patients with invasive anal cancer treated with definitive external beam radiotherapy (RT) with a mandatory split of 12 days (52 patients, Montreal, Canada) or without an intended split (32 patients, Zurich, Switzerland) were reviewed. Total RT doses were 52 Gy (Montreal) or 59.4 Gy (Zurich) given concurrently with 5-FU/MMC. RESULTS: After a mean follow-up of 40 +/- 27 months, overall survival and local tumor control at 5 years were 57% and 78% (Zurich) compared to 67% and 82% (Montreal), respectively. Split duration of patients with or without local relapse was 15 +/- 7 d vs. 14 +/- 7 d (Montreal, NS) and 11 +/- 11 d vs. 5 +/- 7 d (Zurich; P < 0.001). Patients from Zurich with prolonged treatment interruption (> or = 7 d) had impaired cancer-specific survival compared with patients with only minor interruption (<7 d) (P = 0.06). Bowel toxicity was associated with prolonged RT (P = 0.03) duration as well as increased relapse probability (P = 0.05). Skin toxicity correlated with institution and was found in 79% (Montreal) and 28% (Zurich) (P < 0.0001). CONCLUSIONS: The study design did not allow demonstrating a clear difference in efficacy between the treatment regimens with or without short mandatory split. Cause-specific outcome appears to be impaired by unplanned prolonged interruption.