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Surgery is rarely used as the main treatment in small cell lung cancer (SCLC). In fewer than 1 out of 20 cases, the cancer is found as only one tumor, with no spread to lymph nodes or other organs. In these cases, surgery might be helpful. If used, it is usually followed by treatment with chemo and maybe radiation.

If surgery might be an option, your doctor will order tests to make sure the lung cancer hasn’t spread and to find out if you are healthy enough to have a big operation and to have all or part of a lung removed. Many people with lung cancer aren’t healthy enough for surgery.

Operations used to treat lung cancer 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, lymph nodes are also removed to look for possible spread of the cancer.

With any of these surgeries you will be in a deep sleep (under general anesthesia) and will usually have a cut (surgical incision) between the ribs in the side of the chest. You will most likely need to spend about a week in the hospital after the surgery. There will be some pain because the surgeon has to cut through the ribs to get to the lungs.

Possible side effects of surgery

Problems after surgery depend on how much surgery was done and a person’s health beforehand. Everyone has pain after surgery. Serious problems can include bleeding, infection, pneumonia, and breathing problems. While it is rare, in some cases people may not survive the surgery.

Recovering from surgery to treat lung cancer can take weeks to months. Whether or not you can return to normal activities some time after surgery depends on how healthy you (and your lungs) were before surgery.

More information about surgery for small cell lung cancer can be found in our document Lung Cancer (Small Cell).

Last Medical Review: 09/09/2014
Last Revised: 01/19/2016