Early surgical techniques were radical, removing both the cancer and surrounding healthy tissue, often resulting in long recovery times, life-changing disability, and in some cases, severe cosmetic disfigurement. Today's surgical techniques and technologies are more precise with fewer complications. Women with early-stage breast cancer can now avoid disfiguring mastectomies, people with colon and rectal cancer can maintain their bowel function, and men with prostate cancer can often avoid incontinence and loss of sexual function.
Baltimore surgeon William Halsted pioneers a new approach to removing breast tumors, radical mastectomy, in which the entire breast and the surrounding lymph nodes and chest muscles are removed. This helps reduce recurrences of the disease, which was previously nearly always fatal. Halsted's work also leads to similar approaches for other cancers, in which both the tumor and surrounding tissue are removed. These techniques are still an important part of treatment for some cancers today. For breast cancer, however, surgeries have become far more conservative and effective, enabling many women to avoid mastectomy altogether.