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Surgery for Lung Cancer

Surgery can be done to both diagnose and treat lung cancer. In most cases, surgery is used if the cancer is found in an early stage. You will need to prepare. Work with your doctor to learn more about what to expect before, during, and after surgery.

Cutaway view of lungs
Lymph nodes may be removed.


A mediastinoscopy can provide a tissue sample that’s used for staging (determining the extent of the cancer). During this procedure, the doctor inserts a scope through a small incision made in the neck. By looking through the scope, he or she can see lymph nodes. Lymph nodes may be removed and tested. If no cancer is found in them, you may have further surgery (see below). If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, more surgery may not be done because the chance of curing it with surgery is very low. This decision is based partly on which lymph nodes the cancer has spread to. It's also based on how much of the healthy lung must be taken out to remove all of the cancer.  

Cutaway view of lungs
Surgery may remove part of a lung.


The type of surgical procedure done to treat lung cancer will depend on the location and extent of the cancer. The goal of surgery is to remove visible areas of cancer. This often requires taking out all or part of a lung:

  • Wedge resection. This surgery removes the cancerous tissue and a small area around it.

  • Lobectomy. This surgery removes an entire lobe of the lung.

  • Pneumonectomy. This is removal of the whole lung.

If the cancer is found in an early stage, surgery may cure it. Your doctor will consider the tumor’s size and location in deciding how much of the lung to remove. As with any surgery that uses general anesthesia (medicine that makes you sleep), you will be connected to a machine that breathes for you during the procedure.

In some cases, a procedure called video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) may be an option. It is typically used only for early stage cancer near the outside of the lung. Removal of the lung tissue is done through several small incisions using a thin, rigid tube with a video camera at the end. Less pain, a shorter hospital stay and quicker healing are benefits of this type of surgery.

Risks and Complications

Lung surgery has certain risks and possible complications. These include:

  • Risks of general anesthesia

  • Infection

  • Bleeding

  • Air leaking through the lung wall

  • Heart problems

  • Blood clots in the legs

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Welch, Annette, MNS, OCN
Last Review Date: 12/30/2013
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