Our patients' frequently asked questions about lung surgery.
Q: How much of the lung is removed during surgery?
A: The most common operation for lung cancer is called a lobectomy. There are 3 lobes, or segments, of the right lung and two lobes of the left lung. A lobectomy involves removing the tumor along with the lobe of the lung from which the tumor arises. On occasion, a lobectomy may not be sufficient to remove the entire tumor. In this case, removal of the entire lung may be recommended. This operation is called a pneumonectomy.
Q: Is it possible to breathe normally after part of a lung is removed?
A: Patients with healthy lungs will be able to breathe normally after removal of a lobe, or even an entire lung. Pulmonary function tests are used to determine how much lung can be removed without limiting your ability to breathe.
Q: What if the breathing tests show that a lobectomy cannot be performed safely?
A: If a lobectomy cannot be performed safely, another operation called a segementectomy may be considered. A segmentectomy involves removing the tumor along with a segment of surrounding lung. This operation is safer in patients with a limited ability to breathe, because less of the lung is removed. However, the likelihood that the tumor will come back is somewhat higher after this procedure, compared to a lobectomy.
Q: What can be expected during and following surgery?
A: Typically, surgery for lung cancer takes approximately two to three hours. At the end of the procedure a drainage tube is placed to drain excess fluid from the site of surgery. This tube is usually removed two to four days after the operation. Patients are generally out of bed and walking the first day after the operation. A nurse instructs patients in deep breathing and coughing exercises, which are important to help prevent infection in the lungs. Most patients remain in the hospital for four to five days.
Q: Is there pain following surgery?
Many patients are concerned about the amount of pain they anticipate after the operation. However, many steps are taken to minimize post-operative discomfort. Often, an epidural catheter is used for pain control. This is a catheter placed into the small of the back through which pain medication is infused. An epidural catheter provides excellent pain relief for the first few days after the operation. Once the catheter is removed, pain pills are prescribed to limit the discomfort. Patients are likely to continue pain medication every day for four to six weeks following surgery.
Q: How long is the recovery period? Will help be needed at home?
A: When patients are discharged from the hospital following lung surgery they are able to walk on their own and breathe without difficulty. The incision is usually closed with dissolvable sutures. These sutures do not need to be removed and allow one to shower soon after the operation. Patients are advised not to drive until they no longer require pain medication every day. Although some help around the house for the first week or two may be necessary, there is no need for nursing care at home. It is recommended that patients plan to recover for four to six weeks at home after lung surgery, although some patients may return to work sooner.
Q: Will I need follow-up care?
A: Yes, follow-up care is essential for patients who have undergone lung surgery. Typically you will see your surgeon two weeks after your discharge from the hospital, and will continue to be seen by your doctor at regular intervals for at least five years after your operation.