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Lung Cancer: Surgery

Doctor wearing a surgical mask looking at a chest X-ray

Surgery is often part of the treatment for some early stage lung cancers. Unfortunately, many lung cancers have already spread too far to be treated with surgery by the time they are found.

If surgery is a choice of treatment, different kinds of operations may be done. Which type you have depends on several things, including where the cancer is and how large it is.

When might surgery be used for lung cancer?

You are more likely to have surgery if you have non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) instead of small cell lung cancer (SCLC). 

You have to be healthy enough to have surgery for it to be a good choice for you. If you have heart disease, your lung cancer surgeon may ask your heart doctor to give approval for your surgery. If you have emphysema or any type of lung disease, you will probably need pulmonary function tests before surgery. This is to make sure you will have enough lung function remaining after surgery. 

Non-small cell lung cancer

Surgery is a common treatment for NSCLCs that have not spread to other parts of the body. Surgery often offers the best chance to cure the cancer. When surgery is done, it is usually used along with other forms of treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. 

NSCLC that has spread to other parts of the body is not usually treated with surgery. A possible exception is if the cancer has spread as a single tumor to only one other spot, such as the brain or an adrenal gland. And if the surgeon feels that both the cancer in the lung and in the other organ can be removed.

Small cell lung cancer

You are less likely to have surgery to treat SCLC, unless it is a very early stage cancer. Unfortunately, very few SCLCs are found at such an early stage.

Types of surgery for lung cancer

The type of lung surgery you have depends on your health, extent (stage), and location of the tumor. The doctor may remove part or all of the affected lung. The following are the main types of lung surgery. For these operations, the surgeon usually makes a cut (incision) in the side of the chest wall and reaches the lung between the ribs. This is known as a thoracotomy

  • Lobectomy. Each lung is divided into sections called lobes. The right lung has 3 lobes and the left lung has 2 lobes. This type of surgery removes only the lobe of the lung that the cancer is in, usually along with some of the nearby lymph nodes. This is the most common surgery done for lung cancer that’s only in one lobe of the lung.

  • Wedge resection or segmentectomy. With a wedge resection, your surgeon takes out only the tumor itself and a small portion of lung around it, not the entire lobe. With a segmentectomy, the surgeon takes out a slightly larger section of the lung. These types of surgery are typically done in people who cannot tolerate more extensive surgery such as a lobectomy. For instance, if you have emphysema, your lungs won’t expand well after a lobectomy. The chances of the lung cancer coming back are higher with these types of surgery than with a lobectomy.

  • Pneumonectomy. During this surgery, the entire lung that is affected is removed. Surgeons only do a pneumonectomy if the tumor cannot be completely removed with a lobectomy.

  • Sleeve resection. This surgery is sometimes used if the cancer is in a large airway (bronchus) near where it enters the lung. The section of the bronchus containing the cancer is removed. The lung is reattached to the remaining bronchus. This allows the surgeon to avoid having to remove the whole lung. 

  • Video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS). This is a less invasive procedure for treating early stage lung cancer, especially for smaller tumors. Instead of making a large incision (thoracotomy), the surgeon places a thin tube with a small video camera on the end through a small opening in the side of the chest. The surgeon makes 2 or 3 other small openings in the chest to insert instruments to remove the tumor. This procedure usually involves less pain after surgery and a shorter hospital stay. VATS should be done by a surgeon who has experience with this technique.  

Risks and possible side effects of surgery

All surgery has risks. Some of the risks of any major surgery include:

  • Reactions to anesthesia

  • Excess bleeding

  • Blood clots in the legs or lungs

  • Damage to nearby organs

  • Infections at the incision site or elsewhere

Along with the risks above, lung surgery can sometimes cause:

  • Pneumonia

  • Loss of lung function, which might lead to shortness of breath or feeling tired

Getting ready for your surgery

Before you have surgery, you will talk with your surgeon. After you have talked about all the details of the surgery, you will sign a consent form. This gives the surgeon permission to perform the surgery.
You will also talk with an anesthesiologist. This is the health care provider who will give you the general anesthesia, the medicine that prevents pain and makes you sleep during surgery. He or she also monitors you during surgery to keep you safe. He or she will ask about your medical history and your medicines.

What to expect during surgery

On the day of surgery, you will be taken into the operating room. Your health care team will include the anesthesiologist, the surgeon, and nurses.
During a typical surgery:

  • You will be moved onto the operating table.

  • You may need to wear special stockings on your legs. These are to help prevent blood clots.

  • You will have electrocardiogram (ECG) electrodes put on your chest. These are to keep track of your heart rate.

  • You will also have a blood pressure cuff on your arm.

  • You will be given anesthesia through an IV tube in your hand or arm.

  • When you are asleep, the surgeon will do the surgery.

  • A urinary catheter will be put into the bladder during surgery. It will be kept in place for at least a few days.

What is removed during surgery and where your incisions are depend on the type of surgery you have.

What to expect after surgery

You will wake up in a recovery room. You will be watched closely by health care providers. You will be given medicine to treat pain. You will likely stay in the hospital for several days. How long you stay will depend on the type of surgery you have. People who have VATS can often go home sooner than those who have a thoracotomy. This is because they have smaller incisions that can usually heal faster.
After surgery you will have follow-up appointments with your surgeon and other health care providers. Make sure to keep your appointments. If you have any problems or concerns, contact your health care team.

You may get chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both after your surgery as part of your treatment. The goal is to make it less likely that any cells that may remain won’t spread. Having another type of treatment soon after surgery is called adjuvant therapy.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Richard, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Last Review Date: 1/3/2016
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.