Amputation as a treatment for soft tissue sarcomas

If possible, the surgeon will try to do limb-sparing surgery. But in some situations, they will need to remove (amputate) the limb. This may be done if:

  • the cancer has spread from the bone into the surrounding blood vessels
  • there is a persistent infection in the bone
  • the cancer comes back in the bone.

You may find it helpful to talk to your healthcare team before your surgery. The team will include specialists in rehabilitation, such as physiotherapists. They can answer any questions or concerns you may have.

After your operation, you will have a bandage over the affected site to help shape the area.

You will also have a drip in your vein to give you fluids. If you have any pain after the operation, this can be controlled with painkillers.

Following an amputation, it is usually possible to have an artificial limb (a prosthesis).

Your healthcare team can give you more information about this.

Amputation can be distressing. Your hospital team will have experience in supporting people through this difficult time and will be available to help you.

Amputation

It is not always possible to do limb-sparing surgery and, occasionally, the surgeon will need to remove (amputate) the limb. This may be because the cancer has spread from the bone into the surrounding blood vessels. You may also need an amputation after limb-sparing surgery if there is an infection in the bone that persists despite treatment, or if the cancer comes back in the bone. Very occasionally, after discussion with their specialist doctor and family, people choose to have an amputation instead of limb-sparing surgery.

The preparation for amputation is similar to the preparation for limb-sparing surgery.

You may find it helpful to talk to the rehabilitation team before you come in for surgery. They will answer any questions or concerns about how you will manage after the operation.

Psychological support for people who are about to have an amputation is also important. Some hospitals and prosthetic rehabilitation units have a counsellor you can talk to about your feelings and any worries you may have before the operation.

It may also help to talk to someone who has had the same operation and can give you practical advice as well as support. The nursing and therapy staff may be able to arrange this for you.


After your operation

You will usually have a drip for a few days to give you fluids. A bandage will be applied over the affected site to help shape the area. You will have a tube in the wound to drain off any fluid that builds up.

Immediately after your surgery, your pain will usually be controlled either by:

Some people have a pain that appears to come from the part of the limb that has been amputated. This is known as phantom pain or sensation. Although this pain will usually fade over time, there may be some discomfort in the area for a while after the operation.

We have more information about pain and the many ways of controlling it.

About 2–3 days after surgery, you will be encouraged and helped to move around. The physiotherapist will visit you shortly after your operation and show you how to do exercises to keep the muscles around the operation site strong and supple. This will make it easier to use an artificial limb. The physiotherapist will also show you how to do the breathing and leg exercises.


Artificial limb (prosthesis)

Following an amputation, most people can be fitted with an artificial limb called a prosthesis. Modern technology means that artificial limbs are now very effective, enabling people to walk, run and play sport.

The fitting of artificial limbs may be arranged through the ward where you are being treated or through a separate limb clinic. After your operation, you will have an appointment to see an artificial limb specialist who will show you the different types of prosthesis and how they work. Careful measurements have to be taken so that the prosthesis fits properly. It may take several weeks for your prosthesis to be made. 

In the meantime, you may be fitted with a temporary one so that you can begin to get used to having one. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information about this. To use an artificial limb, you use up more energy so they might not be suitable for people who are frail or have other health conditions like heart disease.


Living with an amputation

Amputation can be very distressing and can take a long time to come to terms with.

Feelings and emotions

Losing an arm or a leg can feel like a bereavement. You will need time to grieve for your loss and to start to cope with the emotional and practical difficulties this type of surgery can bring.

We have more information about dealing with the emotional effects of cancer.

Body image

Even if you thought you had a good idea of what to expect before surgery, you may still feel shocked and distressed after the operation when the full realisation of having lost an arm or leg hits you. You will be used to what your body looks like and it can be very difficult to come to terms with a major change such as an amputation.

Feeling like you look different from other people can affect your self-confidence. You may feel afraid of being rejected – both socially and sexually. At times, you may even wish that you had never agreed to the operation.

At first, you may find it difficult to see people after your amputation. But as you and the people close to you become used to the way you look, you will become more confident about dealing with the reactions of people you don’t know. Some people find it helpful to get out and about as soon as possible after their operation. However, it is important to take the time you need to get used to your amputation and to do things in your own time. You may want to take someone with you at first to give you emotional support. You may find that other people don’t even notice your amputation, especially if you are wearing an artificial limb.

We have more information to help you cope with body changes.

Family and friends

Your partner, family and friends may also find it hard to come to terms with their feelings about your amputation. You may be anxious about what they will say or think, and whether you will be able to cope with their reactions. This worry can feel very real, but most people find that their families and friends want to do as much as possible to support them. It can help to be open about your feelings and any fear of rejection.

We have more information to help you talk about cancer.

Sexuality

You may feel unattractive and embarrassed about your body, and worry that no one will find you sexually attractive again. Meeting a new partner may seem particularly daunting. If you have a partner, you may be concerned that they will not find you attractive any more.

We have more information on sexuality and cancer.


Help is available

You will need time and help to come to terms with your emotions, which are likely to be very strong. The hospital staff will know this and will try to help you all they can. Often, there are counsellors or psychologists in the hospital, and the staff can arrange for you to see them.

Many people find it helpful to discuss their feelings in depth with a close friend or someone who is removed from their situation, such as a counsellor.

Back to Surgery explained

Limb-sparing surgery

Limb-sparing surgery is when just the area of cancer, and some of the tissue around it, is removed.

What happens after surgery?

You’ll be monitored very closely after your operation. You will be very tired so it’s important to rest and look after yourself.

Who might I meet?

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

Skin grafts and flaps

If a large area of skin is removed during surgery for a sarcoma, you may need a skin graft or flap.