Understanding Brain Cancer: Surgery

Surgery is usually the first treatment for most brain tumors. Here’s what you can expect. Before you have surgery, part of your head will be shaved. You probably won’t need your whole head shaved. You will then be given general anesthesia. Surgery to open the skull is called a craniotomy. In this procedure, the surgeon makes an incision (cut) in your scalp. The surgeon then uses a special kind of saw to remove a piece of bone from your skull.

The surgeon will remove as much tumor as possible. You may be awake when the surgeon removes the tumor. This may sound scary, but it’s actually very important. The surgeon may ask you to move a leg, count, or say the alphabet. Being able to follow such commands tells the surgeon that important parts of your brain are safe.

Once the tumor is removed, the surgeon covers the opening in your skull with the piece or bone. Sometimes a piece of metal or fabric is used instead. The surgeon then closes the incision in your scalp. You will have a bandage around your head.

What are the side effects of surgery?

After surgery, you may have a headache or be uncomfortable. This usually lasts only a few days. Your doctor and nurse can give you medicine to help control the pain. Before you have surgery, discuss the plan for pain relief with your doctor. After surgery, you can expect to feel tired or weak. Every person is different, and the time it takes each person to heal is different. You will probably have to stay in the hospital a few days.

After surgery, there are other problems that can arise but they are less common. For instance: 

  • Your brain may swell.
  • Fluid may build up within your skull.

Your doctor will check you for signs of swelling or fluid buildup. You might need steroids to help relieve the swelling. Sometimes a second surgery is needed to rain the fluid. In this procedure the surgeon puts a long, thin tube called a shunt into a ventricle of the brain. This tube extends under the skin to another part of your body—usually the stomach. The tube carries extra fluid from the brain and drains it.

Infection is another side effect possible after surgery. If this happens, your doctor can treat it with an antibiotic.

Sometimes brain surgery harms normal tissue. This can cause problems with thinking, seeing or speaking. It can also cause personality changes or seizures. Usually these problems are only temporary. Sometimes, however, the damage is permanent. You may need physical, speech or occupational therapy.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions about surgery:

  • Do you suggest surgery for me?
  • How will I feel after the operation?
  • What will you do for me if I have pain?
  • How long will I be in the hospital?
  • Will I have any long-term effects? Will my hair grow back? Are there any side effects from using metal or fabric to replace the bone in the skull?
  • When can I get back to my normal activities?
  • What is my chance of a full recovery?

In some cases surgery isn’t possible. For instance, if the tumor is in the brain stem, the surgeon would not be able to operate without hurting normal brain tissue.

People who can’t have surgery can receive radiation therapy or other treatment.

Return to list of treatment options.

Back to “Understanding Brain Cancer: An Introduction”