Types of surgery for brain cancer
Different types of operations may be used for brain and spinal cord tumours.
Learn more about:
- Removing a brain tumour (craniotomy)
- Awake craniotomy
- Removing a pituitary tumour (endoscopic transsphenoidal surgery)
- Removing a spinal cord tumour (laminectomy)
- Computer guidance
Removing a brain tumour (craniotomy)
This is the most common type of brain tumour operation. A craniotomy removes all or part of the tumour (total or partial resection) and may be done under a general anaesthetic. The surgeon cuts an area of bone from your skull to access the brain. The tumour is then taken out, and the bone is put back. The surgeon holds the piece of skull in place with small plates and screws.
If you have a high-grade glioma, you may be given a solution to drink before surgery that makes the tumour glow under ultraviolet light. This may help the surgeon remove as much of the tumour as possible, while avoiding normal brain tissue.
This operation may be recommended if the tumour is near parts of the brain that control speech or movement. All or part of the operation is done with the person awake (conscious) but relaxed, so they can speak, move and respond.
The surgeon asks you to speak or move parts of your body to identify and avoid damaging those parts of the brain. An electrode is also used to stimulate and pinpoint important areas of the brain.
You may be worried that an awake craniotomy will be painful, but the brain itself does not feel pain and local anaesthetic is used to numb surrounding tissues.
Removing a pituitary tumour (endoscopic transsphenoidal surgery)
The most common surgery for tumours near the base of the brain (e.g. pituitary gland tumours) is called endoscopic transsphenoidal surgery. To remove the tumour, the surgeon inserts a long, thin tube with a light and camera (endoscope) through the nose and into the skull at the base of the brain. An ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon may assist with this type of surgery. You will be given a general anaesthetic for this operation.
Removing a spinal cord tumour (laminectomy)
The most common surgery for spinal cord tumours is called a laminectomy. In this procedure, the surgeon makes an opening through the skin, muscle and a vertebra in the spinal column to remove the tumour that is affecting the spinal cord. A laminectomy is usually performed under general anaesthetic.
For more on this, see our general section on Surgery.
It is now usual for a craniotomy to be done using a computer navigation system to guide the surgeon. This is known as stereotactic surgery.
The computer uses the results of planning scans to create three-dimensional images of the brain and tumour. During the operation, the computer monitors the surgical instruments, allowing the surgeon to be very precise.
Stereotactic surgery is safer, more accurate and requires a smaller cut in the skull than non-computer-guided surgery.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
A/Prof Andrew Davidson, Neurosurgeon, Macquarie University Hospital, NSW; Dr Lucy Gately, Medical Oncologist, Oncology Clinics Victoria, and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, VIC; Melissa Harrison, Allied Health Manager and Senior Neurological Physiotherapist, Advance Rehab Centre, NSW; Scott Jones, Consumer; Anne King, Neurology Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Health Department, WA; Dr Toni Lindsay, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Allied Health Manager, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Elissa McVey, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Claire Phillips, Deputy Director, Radiation Oncology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Ask a health professional or someone who’s been there, or find a support group or forum
Need legal and financial assistance?
Pro bono legal and financial matters, no interest loans or help with small business
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment