How Can Surgery Help Treat Lung Cancer?
Surgery is a form of treatment that can be used alone but is mostly used in conjunction with other treatments, such as radiation or chemotherapy. Learn more about how surgery can help lung cancer patients and potential side effects.
Surgery for Lung Cancer Patients
Generally, patients who develop tumors in their lungs have lung cancer. Once a doctor diagnoses a patient with lung cancer, their treatment options will be assessed based on several factors. The form of treatment a doctor chooses for a patient can involve multiple methods. Three primary ways of treating lung cancer include chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. These treatments can sometimes be used on their own or in conjunction with each other.
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Is Surgery the Right Lung Cancer Treatment for Me?
Before you can undergo surgery, your oncologist must conduct a series of tests and examinations to determine if you are the right candidate. This is a very invasive procedure, and there’s a process that must be followed before the doctor will advise on it as a treatment method for lung cancer.
The oncologist first has to diagnose lung cancer in the patient and then order tests to determine exactly what stage of the disease the patient is in. After these results come back, the doctor will then analyze whether surgery is possible based on the location of the tumor. Once these determinations have been made, the doctor must examine the general health of the patient, to ensure they are healthy enough to survive the procedure and breathe properly afterward. After all of these steps have been taken, the doctor will then make the final decision on whether surgery is the best step to take for the patient.
More specifics on the factors that determine your eligibility for surgery:
Type of Lung Cancer
There are two types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer (most common), and small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer spreads faster, making surgery a less viable option for patients.
Stage of Lung Cancer
Surgery is most effective with stages 1, 2, and 3A for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Patients in later stages may not be eligible for surgery, because their cancer has metastasized (i.e., spread) to several areas of the body.
Location of Tumors
If the affected cells are too close to any vital organs, such as the heart, surgery may not be an option. In this situation, a doctor will administer different treatment methods.
Types of Lung Cancer Surgery
There are multiple types of surgery an oncologist can administer to treat and potentially cure a patient with lung cancer. These methods require the doctor to administer general anesthesia to the patient so as they don’t experience pain with the incisions that must be made.
Surgery is rarely used as the primary treatment for lung cancer since it progresses so quickly. In the small number of patients (less than 1 out of 20) who only have a single tumor in one lung, surgery could be the primary treatment. Even then, patients usually need additional chemotherapy to finish killing off what remains of the tumor cells.
For stage 4 patients, surgery may be used to remove large tumors prior to the administration of radiation or chemotherapy.
After being put under, the doctor will make some large incisions between the ribs in the side of the chest or back to remove cancerous masses.
Video-Assisted Thoracic Surgery (VATS)
Video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) is a less invasive version of the thoracotomy. The procedure is commonly performed by doctors to treat early-stage lung cancers.
This procedure involves the surgeon making smaller surgical incisions between the ribs and inside of the chest or back than they would with a standard thoracotomy. Since the surgeon can make smaller incisions, the recovery time is significantly shorter.
Robotically-Assisted Thoracic Surgery (RATS)
With RATS, thoracoscopy is performed with the help of a robotic system. The surgeon will sit at a control panel in the operating room and manipulate a robotic arm that will operate through several small incisions in the patient.
This form of surgery removes an entire lung. When a tumor is closer to the center of the chest, pneumonectomy may be performed.
The lungs consist of five lobes – two on the left and three on the right. A lobectomy involves surgically removing the entire lobe, which contains the tumors. This is the most commonly performed (and preferred) surgery for patients with NSCLC.
Segmentectomy or Wedge Resection
For this type of surgery, only part of the lobe is extracted. If the patient does not have enough normal lung function to withstand the removal of the entire lobe, the oncologist may recommend segmentectomy or wedge resection.
If tumors begin developing in large airways in the lungs, similar to the sleeve of a shirt, the oncologist may recommend this type of surgery. First, the surgeon will remove the area across the sleeve (airway), above and below the tumor, and then sew the cuff back onto the shortened sleeve to repair the airway.
Possible Side-Effects and Risks
There are always risks when undergoing treatment for any type of illness. The level of risk and side-effects largely revolves around the patient’s general health and stage in the disease. Some complications during or soon after surgery can include:
- Allergic reaction to anesthesia
- Blood clots in the legs or lungs
- Excess bleeding
- Infections in the incisions or wounds
- General pain from the surgery
Recovering from surgery can take weeks to months. If surgery is done via thoracotomy, the area near the incisions may be inflamed and hurt for some time after. Physical activity may be limited for a month or two. Those who have VATS instead of regular thoracotomy tend to have less pain and recover quicker.
Costs Associated With Surgical Treatment
Lung cancer treatment costs can climb to devastating heights. Specifically, surgery is a costly treatment option that comes with other related fees that can sometimes be forgotten. Besides the operation, additional costs associated with surgery can include:
- Follow-up visits
- Hospital visit and stay
- Medications and prescriptions
- Post-operative fees
- Traveling to and from hospital
If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer through exposure to a toxic substance at your residence or work, you could be entitled to financial compensation that would alleviate some of the costs associated with lung cancer.
Talk with your doctor about the details surrounding your diagnosis.