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Surgery, or having an operation, is the physical removal of the cancer tumor and any nearby lymph nodes that may contain cancerous cells. Ideally, a thoracic surgeon, an expert in lung cancer surgery, should perform this operation. If you need surgery, find a surgical center that performs a lot of lung cancer surgeries. Don’t be afraid to ask whether your recommended surgeon is a thoracic surgeon and how many lung cancer surgeries he or she does. Surgeons performing one or more lung cancer surgeries per week are recommended.

Whether you can be treated with surgery depends on:

  • The type and stage of your cancer. Surgery is generally not recommended if the cancer has spread to other organs (stage IV NSCLC) or for SCLC.
  • The location and size of your tumor. If the surgeon cannot safely remove your tumor, the disease is called inoperable, or unresectable, and surgery may not be an option (stage IIIB and some stage IIIA NSCLC).
  • If you are otherwise healthy enough to have surgery. If you have heart or lung disease in addition to lung cancer, you may not be able to withstand surgery.
Traditional Surgery

If you have lung cancer surgery through the traditional, opened-chest approach, full recovery usually takes 6-8 weeks.

Less Invasive Surgical Approaches

Depending on the size and location of your tumor, you may be able to have lung surgery by a minimally invasive approach, either video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) or robotic-assisted thoracic surgery (RATS). TThis type of surgery is less invasive because it uses smaller openings and a video camera to guide the surgeon. This procedure results in less injury to your bones and muscles, and a shorter recovery time. Recovery time will vary depending on your particular surgery, your general health and how well you heal.

Types of surgery
  • Lung Lobes and SegmentsWedge resection:  The surgeon removes a small wedgeshaped section of the lung containing the tumor and a small amount of healthy tissue around the cancer. This procedure allows you to maintain a majority of your lung function. 
  • Segmentectomy: One or more segments (regions supplied by distinct blood and air supply) of the lung that is affected by the lung cancer are removed. Typically, the amount of lung tissue and lymph nodes removed in a segmentectomy is more than in a wedge resection, but less than in a lobectomy.
  • Lobectomy: The entire lobe (portion) of the lung affected by lung cancer is removed. The right lung has three lobes, and the left lung has two, so having a lobectomy allows you to maintain most of your lung function. This is generally the preferred procedure, although it depends on your unique situation.
  • Pneumonectomy: The surgeon completely removes the lung with cancer. This must be done when the tumor is located in the lung’s largest airway or very near the trachea (wind pipe), or when the cancer affects more than one lobe of the lung. This procedure can significantly reduce lung function, but most people find they can get back to nearly normal activities with the help of physical and respiratory therapy
Removal of Lymph Nodes

If you have surgery, your surgeon will likely also remove some lymph nodes from the lung and the center of the chest (your mediastinum) to check them for cancer cells. This will help your doctors determine if your cancer has spread elsewhere in your body and may change your staging and treatment plan. If cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes, chemotherapy may be recommended after your surgery

Myth Buster: Cancer Surgery

You may hear that cancer can spread if it is exposed to air during surgery, but this is not true. Some people may get this idea if the doctor finds more cancer during the surgery than was previously expected. Although doctors can usually get a very good understanding of the extent and location of cancer from scans and tests, these methods are not perfect. Occasionally, a surgeon will find more cancer than expected. In these cases, the cancer was already there, but wasn’t seen on previous scans or tests. Delaying or refusing surgery because of this myth could make it significantly harder for your cancer care team to treat your cancer.

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This information is not designed to be a substitute for medical advice provided by your treatment team.
Last updated 5/2016

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