BACKGROUND: Despite improved treatment results achieved in Hodgkin's disease (HD), only about 70% of patients with advanced stages are cured. The primary aim of this study was to evaluate the outcome of advanced stages (IIB-IVB) of HD in younger patients in an unselected population-based group of patients. The patients were recommended individualized treatment with respect to number of chemotherapy (CT) courses and post-CT radiotherapy (RT) based on pretreatment characteristics and tumour response. Secondly, we investigated if variables of prognostic importance could be detected. PATIENTS AND METHODS: Between 1985-92, 307 patients between 17-59 yr of age (median 36) were diagnosed with HD in stages IIB-IVB in 5/6 health care regions in Sweden. Median follow-up time was 7.8 yr (1.3-13). Retrospectively, laboratory parameters were collected. RESULTS: In total, 267 (87%) patients had a complete response (CR). The overall and disease-free 10-yr survivals in the whole cohort were 76% and 67%, respectively. There was no difference in survival between the groups of patients who received 6 or 8 cycles of CT. Survival was not higher for patients in CR after CT when RT was added. For those in PR after CT, additional RT raised the frequencies of CR. A selected group of pathologically staged patients was successfully treated with a short course (2 cycles) of CT + RT. In univariate analyses survival was affected by age, stage IVB, bone-marrow involvement, B-symptoms, S-LDH, S-Alb and reaching CR or not after 2, 4 and 6 cycles of CT. In a multivariate analysis, age and reaching CR after 6 cycles of CT remained statistically significant. CONCLUSIONS: The lack of difference in survival between the groups of patients who received 6 versus 8 cycles of CT indicates a successful selection of patients for the shorter treatment. Reaching a rapid CR significantly affected outcome. Whether some patients need less CT than the generally recommended 8 courses can properly only be evaluated in a randomised study. Additional RT may play a role in successful outcome, particularly if residual tumours are present, but its precise role can also only be defined in prospectively randomised studies. Reaching CR after CT was the most important variable affecting survival besides age.