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Surgery to remove the cancer (often along with other treatments) may be an option for early stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). If surgery can be done, it offers the best chance of a cure.

Operations used to treat NSCLC involve removing a lung or part of a lung. If the entire lung is removed, it is called a pneumonectomy. Operations to remove part of a lung include lobectomy, segmentectomy, wedge resection, and sleeve resection.

Some doctors now treat some early stage lung cancers near the outside of the lung with a procedure called video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS). Instead of making a big incision, surgery is done through small holes (incisions) in the skin under the guidance of a tiny camera on the end of a tube that is placed into the chest through a small hole to let the surgeon see the tumor. The doctor who does this surgery should have experience because it takes a great deal of skill.

With any of these operations, nearby lymph nodes are also removed to look for possible spread of the cancer.

The type of operation your doctor suggests depends on the size and place of the tumor and on how well your lungs are working. People whose lungs are healthier can withstand having more of the lung removed. In some cases, if a person’s lungs are healthy enough, doctors may want to do a bigger operation because it may offer a better chance to cure the cancer. Some people aren’t healthy enough for surgery, and other treatments are used.

Surgery for lung cancer is a major operation, and recovering can take weeks to months. But people whose lungs are in good condition (other than the cancer) can often return to normal activities after some time if a lobe or even a whole lung is removed. If they also have problems such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis (common among heavy smokers), they may have long-term shortness of breath.

More information about these surgeries can be found in the section about surgery in Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell).

Surgery for lung cancers with limited spread to other organs

If the lung cancer has spread to the brain or adrenal gland and there is only one tumor, you might have the metastasis removed. This surgery would be done only if the tumor in the lung can also be completely removed. Even then, not all lung cancer experts agree with this approach, especially if the tumor is in the adrenal gland.

For tumors in the brain, the surgery is done through a hole in the skull (called a craniotomy). It should only be done if the tumor can be removed without harming vital areas of the brain.

For more information about surgery, see A Guide to Cancer Surgery.

Last Medical Review: 08/18/2014
Last Revised: 02/24/2016