Methods of sphincter preservation were developed more than a century ago. Combining these techniques with adequate anterior resection has permitted the resurrection of sphincter-saving procedures that are currently being applied in the therapy of cancer at every level of the rectum. Although Miles' abdominoperineal resection still remaisn the 'gold standard' for the treatment of low rectal neoplasms, restorative may now be possible with equivalent oncologic disease control and survival. Further, current trends also suggest that the abdominoperineal resection is being used less frequently in the treatment of most rectal cancers and is being replaced with sphincter-preserving techniques that afford excellent functional results. In this review, the pertinent anorectal anatomy, current issues, and sphincter-saving surgical techniques presently available for the treatment of distal cancers of the rectum are presented.