Surgical Resection to Treat Lung Cancer

Everyone who has lung cancer should be evaluated for possible surgery, because surgery is the most effective treatment for non-small cell cancer. The major considerations in deciding whether someone is a good candidate for surgery are how resectable the tumor is and whether the operation is possible considering the condition of the person who has the cancer.

A resectable tumor is one that can be removed in its entirety. If the tumor has spread extensively or involves vital structures, such as the heart or major blood vessels, it is no longer resectable. The decision that a tumor is not resectable is usually based on information from the biopsy and scans.

A tumor is considered operable if the patient is able to undergo the surgery safely and can tolerate the extent of resection necessary for a cure, taking into account other key factors such as lung function and the presence of other diseases.

Lung cancer surgery may involve removal of a lobe or an entire lung. If the tumor is very small, the surgeon may remove a wedge-shaped piece of the lung in an operation called a wedge resection. A hospital stay of up to one week is usually required. People with otherwise healthy lungs can often resume normal activities after a period of recuperation. Most people need two to six months to recover fully.

A new kind of surgery for people with early-stage lung cancer is called video-assisted thorascopic surgery (VATS). A tiny camera is placed through a small hole in the chest to help the surgeon see the tumor. The surgeon then makes one or two additional small holes in the skin and passes instruments through these openings to remove the tumor.

Because only small incisions are needed, patients generally experience less pain after surgery. The cure rate appears to be the same as for standard surgery.

Recent research indicates that survival in people with early-stage non-small cell lung cancer is slightly improved when surgery is followed by chemotherapy.

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 10 Sep 2011

Last Modified: 24 Sep 2015