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What Is an Inoperable Brain Tumor?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An inoperable brain tumor is a tumor in the brain that cannot be safely removed with surgery because of location, size, or other concerns. Alternative treatments are available for such tumors, and they do not necessarily have to be a death sentence. Some grow very slowly, for instance, and a patient may be able to control the growth of an inoperable brain tumor with medications and radiation therapy to live out a normal lifespan.

The determination of whether a tumor is treatable with surgery depends on a number of factors. Every surgeon has a different approach to tumor evaluation and treatment. A tumor one surgeon pronounces inoperable may be considered treatable with surgery by another. Patients may want to consider consulting with several surgeons to get balanced advice about their treatment options, and to make a decision with as much information as possible in hand.

One reason a tumor may be inoperable is because it is in a very complicated location. Brain surgeons cannot access every corner of the brain, or may be concerned that while they could get to the tumor, they might also cause significant collateral damage. The risks for the patient's quality of life may be too great when balanced with the benefits of surgery, and a surgeon may decide a patient has an inoperable brain tumor on the basis of this.

Another concern can be vascularization. Some tumors grow in discrete pockets and they are very easy to remove. The surgeon can find the margins and lift the tumor out intact during the surgery to increase the chance for a positive outcome. An inoperable brain tumor may sprawl, contain tissue that looks a lot like regular brain tissue, or be tangled with blood vessels in the brain. Sometimes this presents too much of a surgical challenge, and it would be dangerous to operate.

A brain tumor can also be too large for a surgeon to remove safely. The tumor may be wrapped around critical structures in the brain or be too difficult to differentiate from healthy tissue because of the size and level of growth. The surgeon could recommend a partial excision to get as much tissue as possible, but this might also expose the patient to the risk of metastasis by breaking up the tumor and seeding it around the skull.

Other concerns may surround the patient's health. The tumor itself may be operable but a surgeon could worry that the patient will not survive surgery or grueling cancer treatments. In this case, subjecting the patient to surgical trauma would not be ethical, and the surgeon may recommend palliative care and more conservative treatments instead.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By RocketLanch8 — On Mar 28, 2014

@Reminiscence- I had a friend who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He and his family decided to search all around the country until they could find a neurosurgeon willing to attempt surgery. Just about every doctor they approached turned them down, mostly because the tumor was wrapped around a very complicated bundle of nerves.

I wish this story had a happier ending. The family finally found a well-respected neurosurgeon willing to try an experimental technique, but my friend died before the operation could take place. An autopsy was performed at the neurosurgeon's request, and it confirmed that the brain tumor was indeed inoperable.

By Reminiscence — On Mar 27, 2014

I don't believe I would want a neurosurgeon to try being a hero. If the tumor is declared inoperable, then I would just have to live with that prognosis. I only have one brain, and I wouldn't want to lose the rest of my faculties because an unnecessary surgery failed. I realize some people might allow a top notch brain surgeon to try a risky procedure, but I'm not one of them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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