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Brain Cancer Surgery And Its Complications

Living with brain cancer often means dealing with physical, cognitive, or psychological difficulties; consequently, returning to normal life post surgery may be challenging for you. Brain cancer surgery has a heavy toll on the body to handle, and you may experience some side effects as you recover.

What is brain surgery?

Brain surgery is a method to resolve abnormalities in your brain. It is part of your central nervous system. It controls your ability to move, think, speak, walk and remember. Brain surgery aims to treat problems without disrupting these essential functions.

During brain surgery, a surgeon might remove some of your brain or abnormal growth in your brain, like a tumor. Surgeons can also repair damaged parts of your brain, such as leaky blood vessels.

Sometimes brain surgery requires an incision (cut) in your brain. But many procedures can access your brain through your nose, mouth or even a tiny dent in your leg. Minimally invasive brain surgery poses fewer risks than open brain surgery and helps you heal faster.

What are the risks of brain surgery?

As with any surgery, brain surgery carries risks of bleeding, infection or reactions to anesthesia. Short term side effects after brain surgery include:

  • Aphasia (difficulty speaking)
  • Brain swelling
  • Confusion or delirium
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Movement or balance problems

The biggest long-term risks after brain surgery include:

  • Behavior changes
  • Brain damage
  • Difficulty walking
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with speech
  • Weakness in your arms or legs

Everyone recovers differently after brain surgery. For some, it can take weeks to recover from minor invasive brain surgeries. Conversely, it may take months for you to heal from a major procedure like a craniotomy.

 You may feel dizzy spells and confusion. Swelling in the brain is expected after surgery, so recovery will take time, and the benefits will not be immediately apparent. Steroids are prescribed to help with the swelling, but they may have side effects (difficulty sleeping, sweating, over-eating, agitation). You must report these symptoms to the doctor so they can decide whether the dose needs to be adjusted. If you feel a headache, inform your doctor as it may be a sign of recurrent edema (swelling in the brain) or a new tumor.

There are several examples when people have completely recovered in a few weeks or months. On the other hand, so many people took time to adjust to permanent changes in their life, such as not being able to work or accomplish all the same tasks they did before. 

How long does it take to recover after brain surgery?

In total, it typically takes about 4-8 weeks to make a full recovery from brain surgery. The initial incisions on your head may be sore for about a week afterwards. You may also have some mild headaches for about 4-8 weeks. If you experience severe or unusual side effects post-surgery, you should seek immediate, emergency medical care.

The challenge of survival

With survival comes other challenges. After having surgery to remove a tumor growing in a part of the brain that controls movement, you may have trouble with balance and coordination. You may find it challenging to sit on a chair. Most challenging is cognitive loss and memory related. 

Managing memory loss due to brain cancer surgery

Memory is our ability to receive information, store it and then remember it in the future. Although there are various types or aspects of memory, it can be split broadly into short-term and long-term memory.

Short-term memories help us remember things from a few seconds ago, such as the name of a person we just met. These are forgotten after around 20 seconds or converted into long-term memories, depending on their importance and the circumstances.

Long-term memories enable us to recall information from the past, whether a minute ago, a year ago, or many decades ago.

How to manage memory loss post brain tumor surgery

You can reduce the effect memory difficulties have on your everyday life in many ways. We have collected these ideas about coping with memory difficulties from experts and people living with a brain tumor.

  • Using memory aids
  • Making adaptations to your environment
  • Trying new ways of organizing and planning
  • Learning about memory techniques

Vision lost post brain tumor surgery

Both benign and malignant tumors can damage the optic nerves directly or indirectly by compressing them through increased pressure on the skull. This can cause problems with a patient’s vision.

Occurring brain tumors are categorized as either primary or secondary. A primary brain tumor originates in the brain itself and is often benign. A secondary brain tumor, also known as a metastatic brain tumor, occurs when tumor cells spread to the brain from another organ. It may cause vision loss or double vision. 

An alternative to double vision is to close one eye. This would sacrifice a small field depth, which is sometimes a good trade-off. Various types of operations are available that can be done to restore vision. 

Why is it hard to walk after brain surgery?

The primary motor cortex is also responsible for the coordination of muscle movements. If a brain injury damages this area, activities involving multiple muscle groups, like walking, can become impaired.

How do you manage this problem?

  • Build and maintain strength, especially core strength
  • Build and maintain flexibility
  • Walking
  • Gym ball
  • Balance boards. 
  • Weight adjustment
  • Standing on one leg
  • Practice walking on different surfaces

Speech difficulty post brain tumor surgery

Neurosurgery can also affect speech and language if the area operated on is involved in communication. These changes may be temporary and reduced as you recover. Sometimes, they can be permanent.

Many people experience language impairments immediately following left-hemisphere brain surgery. However, by one month following surgery, most of these impairments have improved. The exact type of impairment depends on the precise location in the brain the surgery occurred.

Following ways can be adopted to improve speech difficulty-

  • Increase tongue and lip movement
  • Strengthen your speech muscle
  • Slow the rate at which you speak
  • Improve your breathing for louder speech
  • Improve your articulation for more explicit speech
  • Practice group communication skills
  • Test your communication skills in real-life. Situations

cognitive changes after surgery

Many patients recovering from brain tumor surgery experience some emotional difficulties and cognitive changes. Brain surgery can also lead to behavioral changes. This creates mental pressure on the patient and other family members. A therapy called cognitive remediation can also help. This therapy is also known as cognitive rehab or cognitive rehabilitation.

Cognitive dysfunction is a frequent complication in long-term survivors of brain tumors. It can be related to the brain tumor and its treatment, including surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Brain tumors and resection surgery cause physical changes to brain tissue and can lead to diffuse cognitive deficits, including problems with attention, memory, executive functioning, and information processing.  

A brain tumor may also affect mood and emotions, and this is not simply a reaction to a life-threatening event. The area of the brain where a tumor is located determines what functions are affected, such as speech, motor control, cognition, or even emotions. For example, a space-occupying lesion in the left temporal lobe is associated with low mood, but on the right side can produce manic reactions. A tumor in the frontal lobe will often modify emotional processing and behavior. 

Cognitive remediation is a valuable therapy after brain tumor surgery to help a patient overcome these difficulties. Cognitive remediation treatment can teach long-lasting skills that help restore everyday functioning. Research has demonstrated that cognitive remediation interventions incorporating elements of memory, processing speed, and attention led to significant improvements in many cognitive areas.

Cognitive remediation teaches compensatory strategies, such as using a memory notebook or daily planner, as well as using task analysis (the process of breaking down tasks into logically sequenced steps to better carry out essential daily living activities). The central goal is to apply these strategies to everyday life after brain tumor surgery. 

Attention, memory, and executive functions are interdependent, and impairments in these areas profoundly impact daily functioning. Therefore, exercises that increase capacity for attention, working memory, and short-term memory will increase overall mental ability. Such practices also increase an individual’s awareness of the mental effort required to process information. 


Psychometric testing post brain tumor treatment can help to understand your abilities and strengths and can be useful for remediation. This test also helps learn how to self-report your cognitive difficulties to support yourself and your treatment provider in developing a rehabilitation plan.

Emotional, behavioral, and cognitive changes after brain tumor surgery can be disastrous, but you can achieve excellent results and good quality of life with quality rehabilitation.

Expert Guidance from Cancer Coach

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