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Lobectomy Preparation and Recovery: What To Expect

Medically reviewed by Leonora Valdez, M.D.
Written by Joan Grossman
Updated on April 17, 2024

As your lobectomy date approaches, you likely have questions about what lies ahead. Getting ready for this procedure and knowing what to expect before, during, and after the surgery can make the experience less overwhelming.

In this article, we’ll explain lobectomy preparation and recovery, offering insights to support you through this phase of your health care journey.

What Is a Lobectomy?

A lobectomy is a surgical procedure for lung cancer in which an entire lobe of lung tissue is removed. A lobe is a section of the lung, separated by deep grooves. The lungs have five lobes — three in the right lung and two in the left lung, near the heart.

Lobectomy is the most common type of surgery for lung cancer and is performed when cancer affects only part of the lung. When two lobes are taken out, the procedure is called a bilobectomy. When the entire lung is removed, the procedure is called a pneumonectomy.

Lobectomy is performed via thoracotomy, video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), or robot-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (RATS).

During a thoracotomy, an incision is made between the ribs, and the chest wall is opened for surgery on the lung.

VATS is a less invasive procedure that can be performed in cases of early-stage lung cancer. It involves making several small incisions in the chest. These incisions allow a video camera to guide small instruments to extract a lobe without opening the ribs. VATS lobectomy leads to shorter hospital stays, quicker recovery, and less pain.

RATS is a newer form of thoracoscopic surgery, similar to VATS but a surgeon uses robotic instruments to conduct the procedure.

If lobectomy is appropriate for your lung cancer, you can prepare for the procedure in ways that may aid your recovery and help prevent complications.

Preparing for Lobectomy

Lung surgery can be stressful, and emotional and physical issues may arise. Understanding the procedure can help you cope with any concerns.

One MyLungCancerTeam member described their situation in response to another member undergoing surgery: “I’m having a lobectomy. Looks like stage 1. Like you, I just want it out, and surgery is the best way to do that from all my research. Am I afraid? Yeah, it’s a big deal. But I’m much more concerned if I don’t have surgery.”

What To Do Before Surgery

If you, your oncologist, and your cardiothoracic surgeon determine that you are a good candidate for a lobectomy, be sure you understand the steps you need to take before surgery. Follow your doctor’s recommendations carefully.

Typically, people undergoing lobectomy are advised to do the following:

  • Quit smoking if you smoke. Smoking can seriously harm your heart and lungs. If you quit, you lower your risk of infections, heal faster, and might need less rehabilitation.
  • Tell your doctors about all the medications you’re taking. Be sure to discuss prescription drugs, such as blood thinners, over-the-counter medications, and herbal and dietary supplements.
  • Let your doctors know if you have a pacemaker or another medical device implanted in your body.
  • Inform your doctors about any allergies or past reactions to general anesthesia.
  • Be honest about your alcohol consumption. Alcohol can negatively affect your surgery and recovery. Talk to your health care providers if you are a heavy drinker to learn how you can safely cut back on alcohol.

Tests Before Lobectomy

You will have many tests before your surgery that may require several appointments. Your doctors need to make sure you’re healthy enough for a lobectomy. Tests may include:

  • Blood and urine tests to determine overall health
  • CT scan to evaluate your disease
  • Evaluation of your cancer staging
  • Evaluation of your lung function
  • Imaging tests, such as a positron emission tomography (PET) or MRI scan to determine if your cancer has spread

Managing Other Conditions Before Lobectomy

Your surgeon needs to know about other conditions that may affect your surgery. If you have sleep apnea and use a breathing device, you may need to bring your device with you to the hospital. Males who are over 50 or have a history of an enlarged prostate may be given a drug to prevent problems with urination after surgery.

You will also be evaluated for conditions that are risk factors for complications with lobectomy, such as high blood pressure and other types of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and preoperative radiation or chemotherapy.

Physical and Mental Health Conditioning Before Surgery

Your doctor may advise exercises for physical and mental conditioning before having a lobectomy. Studies from Translational Lung Cancer Research show that deep breathing and other types of physical conditioning can increase lung function, physical health, and emotional well-being and may help prevent complications after surgery.

Be sure you work with your doctors to ensure that you are doing exercises that are appropriate for your condition and follow any of their recommendations. Talk to your doctor about referrals for physical therapy if you need help with a recommended preoperative exercise program.

Learn About Lobectomy

Research has shown that outcomes improve when people with lung cancer and their caregivers are well-informed about the upcoming surgery and its aftermath. In a study with 60 participants undergoing lung surgery or caring for someone who was, emotional quality of life was significantly better when people learned more about the procedures. The participants’ symptoms also showed improvement after surgery compared with the control group, who did not receive a plan for lung surgery preparation.

It’s important to understand what will happen before surgery, the day of surgery, and during recovery in the hospital, as well as what to expect while healing at home. Talk with your doctors about each step of the surgical process. Your health care providers may offer an educational program or other resources to help you better understand what you’ll be going through.

How Long Does It Take To Recover From Lobectomy?

Recovering from lung cancer surgery is a common topic of conversation on MyLungCancerTeam, and members report a range of experiences.

“Just had a lobectomy three weeks ago. Anyone know how long it generally takes for the pain to go away or subside? Feels like I have a heavy weight on the left side of my chest and on my left side, plus a lot of tenderness still,” one member wrote.

Another member wrote, “Had a lobectomy. Walked out of the hospital under my own power 50 hours later with no pain meds. Have to take it easy.”

Medical Management After Surgery

During your lobectomy, at least one chest tube will be inserted in your lung to remove air and drain fluid while you are in the hospital. On average, a chest tube is removed after about two days. In rare cases, a chest tube may need to remain in place when you return home. If that happens, your doctor will tell you how to manage the tube.

While in the hospital, you will learn breathing and coughing exercises to improve your lung function. Some people need oxygen in the hospital and at home. You will also be guided on movement and walking protocols, often within hours after surgery, to help strengthen your lung capacity and support healing. You may have a chest X-ray shortly after surgery.

The length of a hospital stay after a lobectomy can vary. The average hospital stay with a thoracotomy is six to seven days. A less-invasive VATS lobectomy requires an average stay of four or five days. After you’re discharged, follow your doctor’s recommendations for pain medication, exercise, and activities. You’ll also be scheduled for a follow-up appointment.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend radiation and/or chemotherapy after a lobectomy.

Home Care After Surgery

Managing your recovery at home requires time and patience. It can take weeks or months to feel normal. After a lobectomy, it is common to experience some pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, or a dry cough. You will be given pain medication and instructions for transitioning away from narcotic painkillers to avoid dependence or side effects such as constipation. Contact your doctor immediately if you develop a fever or any other signs of infection.

Arrange for help with chores, errands, cooking, and other daily tasks from a family member, friend, or caregiver. You will likely need help for a few weeks while you recover.

Your doctor will provide information about how to keep your incision clean, how to manage fatigue and pain, and when to do breathing exercises. Be sure to follow your doctor’s recommendations for walking and maintaining appropriate amounts of activity.

Physical therapy is often prescribed to help you recover. Exercise can help:

  • Clear bronchial fluids
  • Expand the chest
  • Improve posture
  • Increase range of motion in the shoulder
  • Promote general conditioning

Each of these aspects is important for healing respiratory muscles and regaining strength.

Mental Health

Many people who have surgery for lung cancer experience depression and anxiety afterward. It can be challenging to balance lung cancer treatment with everyday life, and postoperative symptoms can make psychological distress worse. Talk with your health care team if you need help addressing mental health issues related to your lobectomy. Your doctors can provide referrals for mental health evaluation and treatment.

Potential Complications of Lobectomy

There may be complications after a lobectomy. The most common complication of lobectomy is an ongoing air leak in the lung, which happens after 15 percent to 18 percent of lobectomy procedures. The risk is higher among people with emphysema.

Other less common complications include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Partial or complete lung collapse
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Lobe torsion — A rare occurrence in which the lobe rotates and blocks blood vessels
  • Bleeding
  • Blood clots
  • Nerve injury

Contact your health care providers if you feel any unusual symptoms, such as sudden chest pain. Recovering from a lobectomy takes time and patience. Stay in close communication with your medical team and follow their instructions carefully. This will not only help manage any complications but also help with your recovery. Take each day as it comes and allow yourself the time to heal physically and emotionally.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLungCancerTeam is the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones. On MyLungCancerTeam, more than 12,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Have you had a lobectomy for lung cancer? What tips would you offer others facing this surgery about what to expect and how best to prepare? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Updated on April 17, 2024
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Leonora Valdez, M.D. received her medical degree from the Autonomous University of Guadalajara before pursuing a fellowship in internal medicine and subsequently in medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute. Learn more about her here.
Joan Grossman is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. Learn more about her here.

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