Perioperative immunosuppression in cancer patients

J Environ Pathol Toxicol Oncol. 2003;22(2):139-46. doi: 10.1615/jenvpathtoxoncol.v22.i2.70.


Cancer patients commonly undergo surgical procedures. The perioperative period is characterized by immunosuppression and may predispose already immunosupressed cancer patients to tumor spread. Cancer patients typically show depression of both cellular and humoral immune functions. Possible mediating factors for immunosuppression during the perioperative period include anesthetic agents, opioids, surgery, blood transfusions, temperature changes, pain, and psychological stress. A surgically mediated decrease in natural killer (NK) cell activity has been implicated as the major contributing factor associated with an increase in metastasis. The decreased NK cell activity during the perioperative period is associated with increased risk of mortality and cancer. Commonly used anesthetic agents and opioids are known to inhibit NK cell activity. Despite the in vivo evidence of anesthetic- and analgesic-agent-mediated immunosupression, surgery by itself results in a three- to four-fold increase in retention of metastasis when compared to the groups in which anesthesia and analgesia were combined. The negative consequences associated with perioperative immunosuppression may be decreased by several strategies, including aggressive pain control, selection of specific anesthetic and analgesic agents, avoidance of unnecessary transfusions, and delay of elective surgeries until the patient's nutritional and immune status is optimized. Recognizing and neutralizing its mediating factors, perioperative immunosuppression in cancer patients may be reduced.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics / adverse effects
  • Anesthetics / adverse effects
  • Body Temperature Regulation
  • Humans
  • Immune Tolerance / drug effects*
  • Immunocompromised Host*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / physiology
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Pain / etiology
  • Perioperative Care
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / immunology
  • Transfusion Reaction


  • Analgesics
  • Anesthetics