Surgery for secondary bone cancer

Surgery may be used to treat secondary bone tumours.

The aim of surgery could be to strengthen a weakened bone, such as thigh or arm bones or hip or shoulder joints. The bone may be strengthened by putting a metal rod down the middle of the bone or fixing a metal plate on the outside of the bone.

Another way to strengthen bones is with a percutaneous cementoplasty. This procedure involves injecting a type of cement into the bone.

If you have a collapsed bone in your spine, you may have a balloon kyphoplasty. A small balloon is inserted into the affected bone and inflated until the height of the bone is back to normal. When the balloon is removed, the space where it was is filled with cement.

Surgery for secondary bone cancer can also be used to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. If this is suitable for you, the aim of surgery is to remove as much of the tumour as possible from the spine.

If only one part of your bone has cancer and it hasn’t spread anywhere else in your body, the surgeon might remove the affected part of the bone. It will sometimes then be replaced with a false part.

How surgery is used to treat secondary bone cancer

Secondary bone tumours may be treated with surgery. You may have surgery:

  • to strengthen a weakened bone
  • to relieve pressure on nerves in the spinal cord
  • occasionally to remove a secondary cancer from a bone.


Strengthening a weakened bone

Bones can sometimes be weakened by the cancer cells. If this happens, it may be possible to strengthen or repair them using surgery.

Weak thigh or arm bones

Sometimes an x-ray shows that a secondary cancer has weakened a long bone such as the thigh bone (femur) or upper arm bone (humerus). If there’s a risk of the bone breaking, you may need an operation to strengthen it and prevent it from breaking. Whether an operation is suitable for you will depend on:

  • which bone is affected
  • which part of the bone the tumour is in
  • other treatment you are having for your cancer
  • your general health.

The operation is usually done under a general anaesthetic. The surgeon puts a metal rod down the middle of the weakened bone or fixes a metal plate on the outside of the bone. This secures and strengthens the bone, holding it firmly so it won’t break. The rods or plates stay in permanently.

A type of plastic bone cement is sometimes used to strengthen large areas of bone damage.

You may need to stay in hospital for up to a couple of weeks after the operation to recover fully. A physiotherapist will see you and give you exercises to do. Most people are able to start walking a couple of days after surgery.

Sometimes the secondary bone cancer causes the bone to crack or fracture before a strengthening operation can be done. If this happens, it may still be possible to mend the bone. Your doctor or specialist nurse will discuss this with you.

Weak hip or shoulder joints 

If secondary cancer has caused a lot of damage to your hip or shoulder joint, you may need an operation to replace the joint. You’ll need to stay in hospital for around 3–7 days and will have physiotherapy afterwards.

You may also have radiotherapy before or after these operations (or both) to try to destroy any cancer cells left in the area and help repair the bone.

Percutaneous cementoplasty

You may have this procedure to strengthen a weakened bone and relieve bone pain. It involves injecting a special type of cement into the bone. It can be used to treat bones in the arm or leg. It can also sometimes be used when a tumour is affecting the spine. In this case, the treatment is called vertebroplasty.

You will have a general anaesthetic or a sedative to make you feel drowsy. Your doctor will put a needle through your skin. Using x-rays or CT scanning to guide the way, they will inject the cement into the weakened bone.

Your doctor can talk to you about whether percutaneous cementoplasty would be suitable for you.

Balloon kyphoplasty

This is a procedure that may sometimes be used to strengthen and restore the height of a collapsed bone in the spine.

You will have a general anaesthetic or a sedative to make you feel drowsy. A doctor makes a small cut in your back. They then use a special instrument to insert a small balloon into the affected bone. The balloon is inflated until the height of the collapsed bone is back to normal. The balloon is then let down and removed from the bone and the space left by the balloon is filled with cement.

Balloon kyphoplasty is a specialised technique that isn’t suitable for everyone. There are other techniques that are similar to balloon kyphoplasty. Your doctor will be able to tell you more about these techniques and will let you know if they are suitable for you.


Relieving pressure on the spinal cord

Surgery is only suitable to treat a small number of people with spinal cord compression. It will depend on several factors including:

  • the type of tumour you have
  • where it is
  • how unstable your spine is.

The aim of surgery is to remove as much of the tumour as possible and relieve pressure within the spinal canal.

It may also involve stabilising the spine further by using metal rods or bone grafts. Your doctor or nurse will explain the operation in more detail if surgery is appropriate for you.


Removing the secondary cancer

Occasionally, if only one part of your bone has cancer and it hasn’t spread to other parts of your body, it may be possible to remove the affected area. The remaining bone may then be strengthened with a metal implant. Sometimes, the bone may be replaced with a false part (prosthesis). The operation is usually done under a general anaesthetic.

If surgery is a possible option for you, your doctor will explain the operation to you and answer any questions you have.

Back to Surgery explained

Who might I meet?

A team of specialists will plan your surgery. This will include a surgeon who specialises in your type of cancer.