Cancer recurrence after surgery: direct and indirect effects of anesthetic agents

Int J Cancer. 2012 Mar 15;130(6):1237-50. doi: 10.1002/ijc.26448. Epub 2011 Nov 9.


Surgery is of paramount importance in the management of solid tumors as definitive resection can be totally curative. Nonetheless, metastatic recurrence after surgery remains a major cause of morbidity and mortality. Interest in the impact of the perioperative period on cancer recurrence is now growing rapidly, with recent research suggesting that some anesthetics or anesthetic techniques may influence the pathophysiology of postoperative metastatic spread. Our review examines the most widely postulated mechanisms for this, including the impact of anesthesia on neuroendocrine and immune function. We also consider evidence for a direct impact on tumor cell signaling pathways based on findings from organ protection research. These studies have demonstrated that certain volatile anaesthetics confer cytoprotective properties to exposed cells and lead to significant upregulation of Hypoxia Inducible Factor-1α (HIF-1α). This ubiquitous transcription factor exerts many effects in cancer: its activity has been linked with more aggressive phenotypes and poorer clinical prognosis. It is proposed that such an upregulation of HIFs in tumor cells by these anesthetics may contribute to a tumor's recurrence by stimulating cytoprotective or protumorigenic behavior in residual cells. Conversely, other anesthetic agents appear to downregulate HIFs or cause negligible effect and thus may prove more suitable for use in cancer surgery. As anesthetic drugs are given at a point of potentially high vulnerability in terms of dissemination and establishment of metastases, there is an urgent need to determine the most appropriate anesthetic strategy for surgical oncology so that the optimal techniques are used to maximize long-term survival.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia / adverse effects*
  • Anesthetics / adverse effects*
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit / metabolism
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / chemically induced*
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / etiology*
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / metabolism
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / pathology
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Anesthetics
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit