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Surgery to remove the cancer might be an option for early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). It provides the best chance to cure the disease. Still, lung cancer surgery is a complex operation that can have serious consequences, so it should be done by a surgeon who has a lot of experience operating on lung cancers.
If your doctor thinks the cancer can be treated with surgery:
To learn more about these tests, see Tests for Lung Cancer.
Different operations can be used to treat (and possibly cure) NSCLC. With any of these operations, nearby lymph nodes are also removed to look for possible spread of the cancer. These operations require general anesthesia (where you are in a deep sleep) and are usually done through a large surgical incision between the ribs in the side of the chest or the back (called a thoracotomy).
The type of operation your doctor recommends depends on the size and location of the tumor and on how well your lungs are functioning. Doctors often prefer to do a more extensive operation (for example, a lobectomy instead of a segmentectomy) if a person’s lungs are healthy enough, as it may provide a better chance to cure the cancer.
Along with the results of imaging tests (such as CT scans) done before surgery, surgeons also rely on what they can see and feel during the operation to help determine which parts of the lung need to be removed. However, some lung tumors might not be easily seen or felt, so in some situations it’s possible that a tumor (or parts of tumor) might be missed.
Your surgeon might use a special intraoperative imaging system during the surgery to help find tumors that aren’t easily seen or felt. For this approach, a fluorescent drug called pafolacianine (Cytalux) is injected into your blood within 24 hours before your surgery. The drug travels through your body and attaches to a specific protein found on lung cancer cells. Once in the operating room, the imaging system gives off near-infrared light that causes the drug to light up, which can help the surgeon see which areas of the lung need to be removed.
The most common side effects after getting pafolacianine are belly pain, heartburn, itching, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, and flushing. Your doctor will probably ask you to avoid any supplements that have folic acid in them for a few days before the procedure because they might affect how well this drug works.
When you wake up from surgery, you will have a tube (or tubes) coming out of your chest and attached to a special container to allow excess fluid and air to drain out. The tube(s) will be removed once the fluid drainage and air leak slow down enough. Generally, you will need to spend 5 to 7 days in the hospital after the surgery.
Video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), also called thoracoscopy, is a procedure being used more frequently by doctors to treat early-stage lung cancers. It uses smaller incisions, typically has a shorter hospital stay and fewer complications than a thoracotomy.
Most experts recommend that only early-stage tumors of the lung be treated this way. The cure rate after this surgery seems to be the same as with surgery done with a larger incision. But it’s important that the surgeon doing this procedure is experienced, because it requires a great deal of skill.
In this approach, the thoracoscopy is done using a robotic system. The surgeon sits at a control panel in the operating room and moves robotic arms to operate through several small incisions in the patient’s chest.
RATS is similar to VATS in terms of less pain, blood loss, and recovery time.
For the surgeon, the robotic system may provide more maneuverability and more precision when moving the instruments than standard VATS. Still, the most important factor in the success of either type of thoracoscopic surgery is the surgeon’s experience and skill.
Surgery for lung cancer is a major operation and can have serious side effects, which is why it isn’t a good idea for everyone. While all surgeries carry some risks, these depend to some degree on the extent of the surgery and the person’s overall health.
Possible complications during and soon after surgery can include reactions to anesthesia, excess bleeding, blood clots in the legs or lungs, wound infections, and pneumonia. Rarely, some people may not survive the surgery.
Recovering from lung cancer surgery typically takes weeks to months. If the surgery is done through a thoracotomy (a long incision in the chest), the surgeon must spread ribs to get to the lung, so the area near the incision will hurt for some time after surgery. Your activity might be limited for at least a month or two. People who have VATS instead of thoracotomy tend to have less pain after surgery and to recover more quickly.
If your lungs are in good condition (other than the presence of the cancer) you can usually return to normal activities after some time if a lobe or even an entire lung has been removed. If you also have another lung disease such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis (which are common among people who have smoked for a long time), you might become short of breath with certain levels of activity after surgery.
If the lung cancer has spread to your brain and there is only one tumor, you may benefit from having the tumor removed. This surgery should be considered only if the tumor in the lung can also be removed or treated (with radiation and/or chemotherapy) completely.
Surgery to remove a tumor in the brain is typically done through a small hole in the skull (called a craniotomy). It should only be done if the tumor can be removed without damaging vital areas of the brain.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Chiang A, Detterbeck FC, Stewart T, Decker RH, Tanoue L. Chapter 48: Non-small cell lung cancer. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
Ghee CD and Vigneswaran WT. Robot assisted thoracic surgery: a review of current literature. Ann Cardiovasc Thorac Surg. 2018; (1): 71-75.
National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Patient Version. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/patient/non-small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq on June 6, 2019.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. V.4.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/nscl.pdf on June 6, 2019.
Last Revised: December 23, 2022