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Treating Osteosarcoma TOPICS

Surgery for osteosarcoma

Surgery for osteosarcoma includes both the biopsy to diagnose the cancer and the surgical treatment. Surgery is an important part of treatment for virtually all osteosarcomas.

Whenever possible, it is very important that the biopsy and surgical treatment be planned together, and that the same orthopedic surgeon at a cancer center does both the biopsy and the surgical treatment.

The main goal of surgery is to remove all of the cancer. If even a few cancer cells are left behind, they can grow and multiply to make a new tumor. To try to be sure that this doesn’t happen, surgeons remove the tumor plus some of the normal tissue that surrounds it. This is known as wide excision. Removing some normal-looking tissue around the tumor raises the chance that all of the cancer is removed.

A pathologist will look at the removed tissue under a microscope to see if the margins (outer edges) contain cancer cells. If cancer cells are seen at the edges of the tissue, the margins are called positive. Positive margins can mean that some cancer was left behind. When no cancer cells are seen at the edges of the tissue, the margins are said to be negative, clean, or clear. A wide excision with clean margins minimizes the risk that the cancer will grow back where it started.

The type of surgery done depends on the location of the tumor. Although all operations to remove osteosarcomas are complex, tumors in the limbs (arms or legs) are generally not as hard to remove as those at the base of the skull, in the spine, or in the pelvis.

Tumors in the arms or legs

Tumors in the arms or legs might be treated with either limb-salvage (limb-sparing) surgery (removing the cancer without amputation) or amputation (removing the cancer and all or part of an arm or leg).

Limb-salvage surgery: Most patients with tumors in the arms or legs can have limb-sparing surgery, but this depends on the location and extent of the tumor.

Limb-salvage surgery is a very complex operation. The surgeons who do this type of operation must have special skills and experience. The challenge for the surgeon is to remove the entire tumor while still saving the nearby tendons, nerves, and blood vessels to keep as much of the limb’s function and appearance as possible. But if the cancer has grown into these structures, they will need to be removed along with the tumor. In such cases, amputation may sometimes be the best option.

The section of bone that is removed along with the osteosarcoma is replaced with a bone graft (piece of bone from another part of the body or from another person) or with an internal prosthesis (a man-made device used to replace part or all of a bone) made of metal and other materials.

Complications of limb-salvage surgery can include infections and grafts or rods that become loose or broken. Limb-salvage surgery patients might need more surgery in the following years, and some could eventually need an amputation.

Using an internal prosthesis in growing children is especially challenging. In the past, it has required occasional operations to replace the prosthesis with a longer one as the child grows. Newer prostheses have become very sophisticated and can often be made longer without any extra surgery. They have tiny devices in them that can lengthen the prosthesis when needed to make room for a child’s growth. But even these prostheses may need to be replaced with a stronger adult prosthesis once the child’s body stops growing.

It takes about a year, on average, for patients to learn to walk after limb-salvage surgery on a leg. This physical rehabilitation is more intense than after amputation. If the patient does not take part in the rehabilitation program, the salvaged arm or leg may become useless.

Amputation: For some patients, amputation may be the best option. For example, if the patient has a large tumor that extends into the nerves and/or the blood vessels, it might not be possible to save the limb.

Results of MRI scans and examination of the tissue by the pathologist during surgery can help the surgeon decide how much of the arm or leg needs to be amputated. Surgery is planned so that muscles and the skin will form a cuff around the remaining bone. This cuff will fit into the end of a prosthetic (artificial) limb.

Reconstructive surgery can help some patients who lose a limb to function as well as possible. For example, if the leg must be amputated mid-thigh (including the knee joint), the lower leg and foot can be rotated and attached to the thigh bone, so that the ankle functions as a new knee joint. This surgery is called rotationplasty. Of course, the patient would still need a prosthetic limb to extend the leg.

With proper physical therapy, the patient is often able to walk on his/her own 3 to 6 months after leg amputation.

If the osteosarcoma is located in the upper arm, in some cases the tumor may be removed and the lower arm reattached so that the patient has a functional, but much shorter, arm.

Rehabilitation after surgery: This may be the hardest part of all the treatments, and this discussion cannot describe it completely. Patients and parents should meet with a rehabilitation specialist before surgery to learn about their options and what may be required after surgery.

If a limb is amputated, the patient must learn to live with and use a prosthetic limb. This can be particularly hard for growing children if the prosthetic limb needs to be changed to keep up with their growth.

When only the tumor and part of the bone is removed in a limb-sparing operation, the situation can be even more complicated, especially in growing children. Further operations might be needed to replace the internal prosthesis with one more suited to their growing body size.

Both types of surgery can lead to problems as well as having possible benefits. For example, limb-sparing surgery, although more acceptable to most patients than amputation, tends to lead to more complications because of its complexity. Growing children who have limb-sparing surgery are also more likely to need further surgery later. Perhaps surprisingly, people with amputations can often be more physically active, as the affected limb can tolerate more physical stress than one with an internal prosthesis.

When researchers have looked at the final results of the different surgeries in terms of quality of life, there has been little difference between them. Perhaps the biggest problem has been for teens, who may worry about the social effects of their operation. Emotional issues can be very important, and support and encouragement are needed for all patients (see “What happens after treatment for osteosarcoma?”).

Tumors that start in other areas

Pelvic tumors can often be hard to remove completely with surgery. But if the tumor responds well to chemotherapy first, surgery (sometimes followed by radiation therapy) may get rid of all of the cancer. Pelvic bones can often be reconstructed after surgery.

For a tumor in the lower jaw bone, the entire lower half of the jaw may be removed and later replaced with bones from other parts of the body. If the surgeon can’t remove all of the tumor, radiation therapy may be used as well.

For tumors in areas like the spine or the skull, it may not be possible to remove all of the tumor safely. Cancers in these bones may require a combination of treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Surgical treatment of metastases

If the osteosarcoma has spread to other parts of the body, these tumors need to be removed to have a chance at curing the cancer.

When osteosarcoma spreads, most often it is to the lungs. Surgery to remove these metastases must be planned very carefully. Before the operation, the surgeon considers the number of tumors, their location (one lung or both lungs), their size and response to chemotherapy, and the general health of the patient. Since the chest CT scan done before surgery may not show all of the lung tumors, the surgeon will have a treatment plan in case more tumors are found during the operation.

Patients who have tumors in both lungs and respond well to chemotherapy can have surgery on one side of the chest at a time. Removing tumors from both lungs at the same time may be another option.

Some lung metastases may not be able to be removed because they are too big or are too close to important structures in the chest (such as large blood vessels). Patients whose general health is not good (because of poor nutritional status or heart, liver, or kidney problems) may not be able to withstand the stress of anesthesia and surgery to remove metastases.

A small number of osteosarcomas spread to other bones or to the kidneys, liver, or brain. Whether or not these tumors can be removed with surgery depends on their size, location, and other factors.

For more information on surgery as a treatment for cancer, see our document, Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 01/08/2013
Last Revised: 02/06/2014