Having your operation for bone cancer | Cancer Research UK
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Having your operation for bone cancer

 Men and women discussing bone cancer

This page tells you about having surgery for cancer that started in your bone (primary bone cancer). If you have cancer that has spread to your bones from somewhere else, this is not the right page for you. We have information on secondary bone cancer that will be more suitable.


A quick guide to what's on this page

Having your operation for bone cancer

Before your operation you will have various tests to check your general health. Your nurse or physiotherapist will teach you breathing and leg exercises to do after your operation.

Immediately after your operation

When you wake up you will have several tubes in place. Your nurses will encourage you to get up as soon as you can. This is to help stop you getting a chest infection or blood clot. You will almost certainly have some pain for the first week or so, but your medical team will try to control it as much as possible.

Your wound

The wound will be covered up when you come round from the operation. It will be left covered for a couple of days. Then the dressings may be changed and the wound cleaned. Your stump or wound area will be sore and sensitive at first. Do follow your surgeon’s advice on how you position your limb. It could affect how well you can use the limb later.

If you‘ve had an amputation your prosthesis 

Once your stump or wound area has healed, you will have a prosthesis fitted – a false arm or leg. Usually these are made especially for you. A technician will take a cast or impression of your stump to make sure the prosthesis fits as well as it can.


CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating bone cancer section.



Before your operation

Before your surgery, you may need

  • Blood tests to check your general health and kidney function
  • Blood tests to check your blood cell count if you have had chemotherapy
  • A chest X-ray – to check your lungs are healthy
  • A CT scan of your chest – to check for cancer spread
  • A bone scan – to check for signs of cancer spread
  • An MRI scan – to check your response to any other treatment you have had
  • An electrocardiogram (ECG) – a painless test of your heart while you are exercising
  • An echocardiogram (ECHO) – a painless test of your heart using sound waves

You may have had some of these tests while your cancer was being diagnosed. If so, you may not need to have them repeated. There is information about having a CT scan and about having an MRI scan in the about cancer tests section.

Your doctor may also want you to have breathing tests. These are called lung function tests. They are done to make sure you are fit enough to make a good recovery from your surgery.

Your nurse or physiotherapist will teach you breathing and leg exercises. You can help yourself to get better by doing these exercises after your operation. You should do them as often as you are advised you need to. Breathing exercises will help to stop you getting a chest infection. And leg exercises will help to stop blood clots forming in your legs. Both these complications of surgery can happen because you are not moving around as much as you would normally be.

Below is a short video showing breathing and circulation exercises after surgery. Click on the arrow to watch it.




View a transcript of the video showing breathing and circulation exercises after surgery (opens in new window)

Your nurses will encourage you to get up and about as soon as possible after your operation. But bone cancer operations are major surgery, and you may have to stay in bed for the first couple of days.

When you go into hospital for your operation, your surgeon, anaesthetist, physiotherapist and nurse will each come to talk to you about what will happen. Your surgeon will explain in detail what is going to be done and what to expect when you come round from the anaesthetic. Do ask as many questions as you need to. It may help to make a list of your questions before you go into hospital for your operation. There are some suggestions for questions at the end of this section.

The more you know about your operation and what will happen, the less frightening it will seem. Don’t worry if you think of more questions later. Just speak to your nurses. If necessary they can ask the doctor to come and talk to you again.

If you have body hair on the surgery area, you may need to be shaved before your operation. This is done to reduce the risk of infection. You may be shaved in the operating theatre after you have had your anaesthetic.


Immediately after your operation

If you have had a big operation you may wake up in intensive care or a high dependency recovery unit. This is nothing to worry about. These are places where you can have one to one nursing care. As soon as your doctors are sure you are recovering well, you will be moved back to the ward.

When you wake up, you will have several different tubes in place. This may make you feel a little anxious. But it helps to know what they are all for. You may have

  • Drips (intravenous infusions) – so you can have blood transfusions if you need them and fluids until you are eating and drinking again.
  • One or more drains from your wound – these help to drain blood and tissue fluid from around the operation area
  • A catheter (tube into your bladder) – it makes it easier for you to pass urine until you are moving around again and the nurses can measure how much urine you pass
  • Spinal anaesthetic – this is a thin tube into the fluid around your spinal cord to give you painkillers 

Your nurses will take out the drainage tubes when fluid from the wound has stopped draining out. This can be up to a week later. They will take the drip out as soon as you are able to eat and drink normally. This usually takes a couple of days. They will take the catheter out when the doctors are happy that you are passing a normal amount of urine.

If you have had lung surgery, you will also have a drainage tube into your chest as well. This will be connected to a suction bottle. The gentle suction helps your lung to inflate properly again after a chest operation.

It is likely you will have a blood pressure cuff on your arm when you first wake up. Your blood pressure will be measured often for the first few hours after you come round from the anaesthetic. You may have a little clip on your finger – called a pulse oximeter, which measures your pulse and blood oxygen level. You may also have an oxygen mask on for a while. Your urine output will also be monitored because it can help to show whether you have too much fluid or are becoming dehydrated.

You may have a couple of electronic pumps attached to your drips. These give you pain killers, antibiotics and any other medicines you may need while you are recovering.



It is likely that you will have some pain for the first week or so, but it is possible to get your pain under control. There are many different painkilling drugs you can have. It is important to tell your doctor or nurse as soon as you feel any pain. They need your help to find the right type and dose of painkiller for you. Painkillers work best when you take them regularly. You may have a hand control with a button to press to give yourself extra painkillers, as you need them. This is called patient controlled analgesia (PCA).

If you have a painkiller pump, do use it whenever you need to. You can’t overdose – the machine is set to prevent that. The nurses are able to check how often you press the button.  If you need to press it a lot, they will know that you may need to have a higher dose in the pump.

Some hospitals use painkillers or local anaesthetic given directly into the nerves of the arm or leg that was operated on. Or you may have a tube going into your back called an epidural or a spinal anaesthetic. If you have this type of pain control, it will be for the first day or so after surgery. It usually works very well. A very fine tube will be taped to your back, arm or leg. It is connected to a pump, which gives you a continuous dose of painkiller.

You may feel pain in an arm or leg after it has been removed. This is called phantom pain. But it is very real, although not everyone has it. Doctors are still trying to understand how and why phantom pain happens. Sometimes it settles down in time. But if not, there are ways of helping to control it. You can find information in our section on pain control, including details about phantom pain.


Your wound

The wound will be covered up when you come round from the operation. It will be left covered for a couple of days. Then the dressings may be changed and the wound cleaned. The wound drains will be left in until they stop draining fluid. Wound drains can usually be taken out about 3 to 7 days after your operation. Your stitches or clips will be left in for at least 10 days.

If you have a cast on your arm or leg, you may want to ask about a waterproof cover. There are covers available to keep your cast dry in the bath, shower or even if you go swimming.


Getting up

For the first few days after surgery, getting up and moving around may seem very difficult at first. Moving about helps you to get better, but you will need to start very gradually. Your physiotherapist will visit you every day after your operation to help you with your breathing and leg exercises.

Your nurses will encourage you to get out of bed and sit in a chair one or two days after your surgery. They will help you with all the drips and drains. Over the next couple of days, the tubes, bottles and bags will start to be taken out. Then it will be much easier to move and you should begin to feel really feel that you are making progress.

Your specialist surgeon will give the nurses and physiotherapists very detailed instructions about your recovery. If you have had limb sparing surgery, the bone will have to heal before you can use it very much. Your surgeon will tell you when you can get up and how you can use the limb that has been operated on.


If you've had an amputation – your prosthesis

After your surgery, you will have a stump or wound area that is sore and sensitive. Once this has healed and any swelling has settled down, you will be fitted with a prosthesis – a false arm or leg. These are usually made especially for you. A cast or impression is taken of your stump to make sure that the prosthesis fits as well as it can.

Remember – Do follow all your surgeon's advice while you are waiting for your stump to heal. If they advise you to lie a certain way, or not to use pillows under your leg, then it is important to follow their advice. This could affect how well you walk in the future. If you want to know why you are being given particular instructions, you can always ask.

You will have to wait until your arm or leg is completely healed before your made to measure prosthesis can be started. This is because the area around your wound will be swollen. Your false limb would not fit properly if the cast was taken before the swelling had gone down. Even so, your stump may change shape and size over time. You will probably have to have the top of your false limb shaped again so that it continues to fit well. A false limb that does not fit can rub and break the skin of your stump. Your physiotherapist will advise you about caring for your skin and help you to prevent soreness and damage.

Children will have to have new false limbs made as they grow.

You will have a lot of help from your prosthetist, physiotherapist and occupational therapist to help you learn to use your prosthesis. This takes a lot of determination.

Remember – it can seem to take a long time before you can move around normally again and this may make you feel very low. It can take many months before you can put a lot of weight comfortably on your false leg. And it may take a while before your limb is completely comfortable. Most people get there within a year of their surgery. Help and support is available if you need it. You can look on our page about bone cancer organisations for people who can support you or offer counselling.

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Updated: 7 January 2015