Surgery for Lung Cancer
Surgery may be a treatment option for early-stage lung cancer. Learn more about the types of surgery that may be done.

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Picture of doctor looking at lung X-ray Surgery for Lung Cancer

If you've been diagnosed with lung cancer, your doctor may recommend surgery as a treatment option. Surgery may be a good choice for you if:

  • You have non-small cell lung cancer. (Small cell lung cancer is rarely found early enough for surgery.)
  • The cancer hasn't spread beyond the lung.
  • Your health is otherwise good.

The goal of surgery is to try to cure the cancer by removing it all. This may mean taking part or all of a lung. Nearby lymph nodes may also be taken out so they can be checked for cancer. After surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be done to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

Types of surgery
One of the following types of surgery may be done for lung cancer. The type of surgery depends on how large the tumor is.

  • Wedge resection is surgery to remove a very small wedge of lung tissue. If a larger piece of tissue is removed, the surgery is called a segmental resection, or segmentectomy. The surgeon may do one of these procedures if the cancer is only in one small part of the lung.
  • Lobectomy is surgery to remove one section, or lobe, of the lung. The right lung has three lobes. The left lung is a little smaller and has two lobes. This is the most common type of surgery for lung cancer.
  • Sleeve resection is surgery to remove part of the bronchus, the tube that carries air into the lung. The surgeon will also remove any nearby lung tissue that contains cancer.
  • Pneumonectomy is surgery to remove a whole lung. This may be the best option if cancer is in both of the left lobes or all three right lobes. Before choosing this surgery, your doctor will do breathing tests to see if you will be able to breathe well enough with only one lung.

Lung surgery may be done using one long incision or several small ones.

  • Thoracotomy is an open-chest surgery. The surgeon makes a cut in the chest wall between the ribs. Then the ribs are pulled open so the surgeon can see inside.
  • Video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) doesn't require a large incision in the chest or opening the ribs. Instead, the surgical tools and a tiny video camera (thorascope) are inserted through several small cuts in the chest. The advantages of VATS are less pain and a quicker recovery. But it takes a specially trained surgeon and it may not be the right choice for some types of lung surgery.

Risks of surgery
Some of the possible risks of lung surgery are:

  • Bleeding
  • Wound infection
  • Lung infection (pneumonia)
  • Lasting pain in the chest
  • Bad reactions to the anesthesia medicines used to make you sleep during surgery

Recovering from surgery
A tube will be left in your chest for a few days after surgery. The tube drains fluid from your lung and helps the lung stay inflated. You may work with a respiratory therapist after surgery to practice deep breathing. This can help the lung expand and help prevent infection.

You will probably stay in the hospital for about a week after surgery. Your doctor may prescribe pain medicine and antibiotics for you to take at home. Most people are back to their normal activities within one to three months after surgery.

If you were a smoker before surgery, it is very important not to start smoking again. Besides the damage it does to your lungs, smoking also makes it harder for you to heal after surgery. If you need help quitting for good, talk to your doctor.

By Lila Havens, Staff Writer
Created on 02/13/2008
Updated on 06/20/2011
  • National Cancer Institute. Non-small cell lung cancer treatment. Treatment option overview.
  • American Cancer Society. Treating lung cancer - non-small cell topics. Surgery.
  • Pickens A, McKenna R Jr. Video-assisted thorascopic pulmonary resections. In: Kaiser L, Kron I, Spray T, eds. Mastery of Cardiothoracic Surgery. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2007.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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