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The goal of surgery for lung cancer is to remove all of the cancer and a border of normal tissue (margin) around it. The type of surgery depends on the location and size of the tumour. Types include:
The doctor removes a larger part of the lung.
The doctor removes the affected lobe of the lung.
During surgery, the doctor may also remove nearby lymph nodes to find out if the cancer has spread.
Lung surgery may be done through one cut (incision) in the chest (thoracotomy). Or it may be done through several small cuts (video-assisted thoracic surgery, or VATS). Your doctor can help you understand which type of surgery is best for you.
Lung surgery requires you to stay in the hospital after the procedure. How long you stay will depend on:
Pain is a common concern after this surgery. Depending on the type of surgery you have, your chest area may be painful for several weeks to months after surgery. Your doctor will prescribe pain medicines you can use for pain after the surgery. You can also talk to your doctor about things you can do at home to help ease pain.
One or more chest tubes are used after surgery to drain your chest cavity of fluid and blood, which are present after lung surgery. The chest tubes also help your lungs refill with air. Chest tubes are placed in your chest cavity and extend out through your chest wall and skin through small cuts between your ribs on the same side as the surgery. The tubes are connected to a machine that creates a gentle suction, which helps your chest fluid to drain. The fluid is collected in a container that measures the amount of fluid draining from your chest. The chest tubes will be removed when the drainage from your chest has stopped and no air is leaking from your chest incision, which is usually after a few days.
A respiratory therapist will help you with breathing treatments to improve your lung function after surgery. Treatments usually involve deep breathing and the use of a spirometer. Medicines may also be used to help open your airway and help you breathe more easily.
A thoracotomy may be done to:
VATS may be done to:
Surgery is more effective in early-stage non-small cell lung cancer when the lung cancer can be completely removed and the cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or outside the chest cavity.
Surgery is sometimes used in limited-stage small cell lung cancer, when there is a single tumour and the cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes. But small cell lung cancers are not often diagnosed at this early stage.
Studies done in medical centres that do many minimally invasive lung surgeries (VATS) have shown that this type of surgery works as well as open-chest surgery (thoracotomy) for cancer treatment. People who had VATS also had less pain, a shorter hospital stay, and a faster recovery.footnote 1
Lung surgery risks include:
CitationsNational Comprehensive Cancer Network (2019). Non-small cell lung cancer. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, version 1.2020. Accessed December 19, 2019.
Current as of: March 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Michael Seth Rabin MD - Medical Oncology
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