Surgery can be a big part of the treatment for early stage non-small cell lung cancer. It may even be the only treatment you get. Sometimes surgery, alone or combined with other treatments, can cure lung cancer.
Four types of surgery treat lung cancer. Some of these procedures remove more of your lung than others. The choice of surgery depends on the size of your tumor and where it’s located in your lung.
- Lobectomy removes just the lobe that contains the tumor. Your lungs have five lobes — two in the left lung and three in the right lung.
- Segmentectomy or wedge resection removes only part of a lobe.
- Pneumonectomy removes the whole lung.
- Sleeve resection cuts above and below the tumor to remove it, and then sews the remaining pieces back together.
Each one of these procedures is a little bit different. Your recovery from them may be slightly different, too.
If you’re scheduled to have lung cancer surgery, you might have questions about what to expect afterward. Here’s a look at everything you need to know about recovering from lung cancer surgery.
Lung cancer surgery can be done through an open procedure or with video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) through several smaller incisions. The length of each procedure differs.
For open surgery, the surgeon first makes a cut between your ribs. Then the surgeon removes as much of the lung as needed to take out the tumor, and closes up the area with stitches or sutures. Open lung surgery typically takes between 2 and 6 hours.
During VATS, the surgeon makes a few small cuts in your chest. Then, the surgeon inserts small instruments and a camera through those cuts to perform the surgery. VATS typically takes about 2 to 3 hours.
Expect to stay in the hospital for 2 to 7 days after lung cancer surgery. The hospital stay for open surgery is longer than it is for VATS.
Lung cancer surgery is a big operation. Once you’re home from the hospital, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for you to fully recover. The length of your recovery depends on the type of surgery you had, how much of your lungs were removed, your age, and your overall health.
People who have VATS tend to recover quicker than those who have open surgery. They can also return to their normal activities faster.
It’s important to give your body time to heal after surgery. Your doctor may advise you not to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for a few weeks after your surgery.
Ask for help with everyday tasks like grocery shopping, cooking, or laundry until you’ve recovered enough to do them yourself. Check with your doctor before resuming activities like exercise, work, and sex.
Expect to have some pain after lung cancer surgery. In the first few days after the procedure, it may hurt most in the area around your incision, as well as in your chest and arm. You might also feel a twinge when you move your arm or breathe in deeply. If you’ve had thoracic surgery, you may also experience pain at the chest tube site.
Your doctor should send you home with pain medication. Take them as prescribed to relieve any discomfort you experience.
How long the pain lasts is different for each person. Some people continue to have soreness or tightness around their incision for a few months. Over-the-counter pain relievers and gentle exercises can help you feel better while you heal.
Pain may prevent you from getting a full night’s sleep for the first few weeks after your surgery. You may not be able to sleep longer than 3 or 4 hours at a time. As your pain improves, you should sleep better.
Find a sleep position that is most comfortable for you. In the first few days after your surgery, you may need to sleep sitting up. It could be painful to sleep on your side for some time.
Surgery can be a very effective treatment for lung cancer. Sometimes removing part or all of the affected lung can cure your cancer.
Lung cancer surgery is a major procedure. Give yourself time to heal afterward.
Go over the recovery process with your doctor before your procedure so you’ll know what to expect. Find out how long your recovery will take, what special precautions you should follow, and what symptoms (fever, drainage from the wound) warrant a call to your doctor.