PURPOSE: Carcinomas of the ampulla of Vater have a higher resection rate, lower recurrence rate and more favorable prognosis than other malignant tumors of the periampullary region. This is because they usually presents with symptoms at an early stage due to their special anatomic location. Because of their relative low incidence, there have been few reports on the patterns and risk factors of a recurrence after a curative resection. The aim of this study was to evaluate the patterns and risk factors of a recurrence after a curative resection of ampulla of Vater cancer. METHODS: The medical records of 87 regularly followed-up patients from a total of 102 patients with a carcinoma of the ampulla of Vater, who had undergone a curative surgery between January 1992 and December 2002, were retrospectively reviewed. Of these patients, 37 were diagnosed as recurrent, with the patterns and clinicopathological risk factors of the recurrence analyzed. RESULTS: The average time to recurrence after a curative resection was 29.3+/-35.3 months, with liver metastasis being the most frequent (40.5%). The mean age of the patients in which a recurrence occurred was 54.9+/-10.1 years. There were 18 male and 19 female patients. The average tumor size in the recurred group was 2.5+/-2.0 cm. The recurrences were classified as early and late if they occurred within 18 months and after 18 months, respectively. The risk factors affecting an early recurrence were the gross morphology of tumor(ulcer formation) and cell differentiation (poorly differentiated). A univariate analysis showed lymph node metastasis to be a statistically significant risk factor, but age, gender, degree of tumor invasion depth and cell differentiation were not statistically significant. CONCLUSION: Lymph node metastasis is the most important risk factor affecting a recurrence after a curative resection of ampulla of Vater cancer, with the tumor gross morphology and cell differentiation important factors in an early recurrence. Further study on postoperative chemotherapy or radiotherapy in patients with lymph node metastasis, an ulcerative tumor type or poorly differentiated cell type, with a long-term follow-up on many patients will be needed.