A lobectomy is the surgical removal of a lobe of an organ. It most often refers to the removal of a section of the lung, but it can also refer the liver, brain, thyroid gland, or other organs.
Every organ is made up of many sections that perform different, specific tasks. In the case of the lungs, the sections are called lobes. The right lung has three lobes, which are the upper, middle, and lower lobes. The left lung has two lobes, the upper and lower lobes.
In most cases, surgeons perform a lobectomy to remove a cancerous portion of an organ and to prevent the cancer from spreading. This may not entirely get rid of the disease, but it can eliminate the primary source of it.
A lobectomy is the most common way to treat lung cancer. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, according to the American Lung Association. It’s responsible for the deaths of more than 150,000 men and women each year.
Surgeons may also perform lobectomies to treat:
- fungal infections
- benign tumors
- lung abscesses
The risks of a lobectomy include:
- an infection
- an empyema, which is a collection of pus in the chest cavity
- a bronchopleural fistula, which is a tube-like track that causes air or fluid to leak out at the surgical site
- a tension pneumothorax occurs when air gets trapped between the lung and chest wall
A tension pneumothorax can potentially cause the lungs to collapse.
Specific medical conditions may lead to complications if you have a lobectomy. Discuss the risks with your doctor before any surgical procedure.
Having a lobectomy can stop or slow the spread of cancer, infections, and diseases. Performing this surgery may also allow your doctor to remove a portion of an organ that affects the function of other organs. For example, a benign tumor may not be cancerous but may press against blood vessels, preventing adequate blood flow to other parts of the body. By removing the lobe with the tumor, your surgeon can effectively solve the problem.
You’ll need to fast for at least eight hours before a lobectomy. This usually means not eating or drinking after midnight. Smokers need to stop smoking before having this surgery. This will improve your chance of a successful recovery.
Most people will receive a sedative before the surgery to help them relax. You may also receive antibiotics, and any other preparatory measures your doctor recommends.
Your surgeon will perform a lobectomy while you’re under general anesthesia.
Several types of lobectomies exist.
For example, a thoracotomy involves your surgeon making large incisions in your thorax, or chest. Your surgeon will make an incision on the side of your chest, often in between two ribs and then create a space between your ribs to see inside your chest and to remove the lobe.
An alternative to a traditional thoracotomy is video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS), which is less invasive and generally has a shorter recovery time. During this procedure, your surgeon will likely make four small incisions around the surgical area to insert a small camera and surgical tools. These allow your doctor to perform the lobectomy and remove the problematic lobe once it’s identified. Your surgeon may place a small, temporary tube in your chest after the surgery is complete.
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What to expect
After surgery, you’ll be taught deep breathing and coughing exercises so your lungs can learn to expand and contract again. This will also improve your breathing and help to prevent pneumonia and other infections. Moving around and getting out of bed will help you heal faster. Slowly increase your physical activity and avoid lifting heavy objects for a while.
Be sure to avoid the following while healing:
- tobacco smoke
- chemical fumes and harmful vapors in the air
- environmental pollution
- exposure to people with upper respiratory infections, such as colds and the flu
Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any of the following side effects after surgery:
- shortness of breath
- trouble breathing
- pain when breathing
- redness, swelling, or pain around the incision
- a high fever
- any changes in your mental state
For some people, having a lobectomy eliminates the medical problem, and for others, it slows their disease’s progression or eases symptoms. If you have lung cancer, the cancer may go into remission after a lobectomy or you may need other treatments to destroy remaining cancer cells. Other conditions may require additional medical attention.
Most people spend two to seven days in the hospital after a lobectomy, but how long you’re in the hospital will depend on a number of factors including the type of surgery you’ve had. Some people can go back to work or resume other activities shortly after that, but most people need to stay home for four to six weeks until they’ve fully recovered. You should avoid heavy lifting for six to twelve weeks after surgery or until your doctor determines you’re well enough.
After the surgery, your doctor will recommend a diet and regimen of physical activity to help you heal. You’ll likely have a follow-up appointment a week after the lobectomy. During that appointment, your doctor will check the incisions and they may take an X-ray to make sure you’re healing properly. If everything goes well, you can expect to have a full recovery in less than three months.