Surgery to remove a limb (amputation)

A limb amputation might be the only way to cure primary bone cancer for some people.

This page is about cancer that starts in your bone (primary bone cancer).

If your cancer has spread into bone from another part of the body, it is called secondary or metastatic bone cancer.

What is amputation?

Amputation means removing a part of the body completely. Usually, the surgeon removes part of an arm or leg rather than the whole limb.

Sometimes amputation is extremely major surgery and involves removing a leg and its hip joint and pelvis, or an arm and its shoulder. These operations are called hindquarter or forequarter operations. A surgeon will only do this if there is no other option to clear the cancer.

It can be devastating news to be told that you must lose an arm or leg. But this might be the only way to try to cure your cancer.

Why you might need an amputation

You might need to have an amputation rather than limb sparing surgery if:

  • the cancer has grown into the major nerves and blood vessels around your bone tumour
  • you developed an infection after your limb sparing surgery that meant the false bone had to be removed
  • the position of the tumour means that limb sparing surgery is not technically possible
  • it is not possible to completely remove the cancer with limb sparing surgery

Getting ready for your surgery

You meet your surgical team before your surgery. The surgeon talks to you about the risks and benefits. They ask you to sign a consent form. This is a good time to ask all the questions you need to.

What happens

You have the surgery in an operating theatre. Before you go you need to put on a hospital gown. Then your nurse takes you to the operating theatre. They put a small tube into a vein in the back of your hand. Your anaesthetist gives you the anaesthetic medicine through the tube and you go to sleep. 

Your surgeon removes part or all of your arm or leg.

Diagram showing an above knee amputation

Removing a limb is major surgery. Your multidisciplinary team will talk with you about what to expect during and after your amputation.

After surgery

Your multidisciplinary team (MDT) will help you after your amputation. This includes living with your new prosthesis, physiotherapy and rehabilitation.

Possible risks

Infection is a risk with any bone surgery, and is a particular risk for people having chemotherapy. You have antibiotics during and after your operation, to try to reduce the risk of an infection.

There are other risks of having an amputation. Your doctor will talk them through with you.

Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having surgery outweigh these possible risks.

Follow up

At your first follow up appointment, your doctor:

  • gives you the results of the surgery
  • examines you
  • asks how you are and if you've had any problems  

This is also your opportunity to ask any questions. Write down any questions you have before your appointment to help you remember what to ask. Taking someone with you can also help you to remember what the doctor says.

How often you have follow up appointments depends on the results of your surgery. Ask your doctor how often you need to have these and what they will involve.

Your feelings

Having an amputation can be very difficult to cope with. How you look is an important part of your self esteem. It can be very hard to accept sudden changes in your looks that you are not happy with. There are people that can support you.

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