27th May 2023

Life After Lung Cancer Surgery: What to Expect

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Surgery is often offered as a treatment option when lung cancer has been diagnosed at an early stage. Whether you receive surgery will depend on the type of cancer you have, its stage and your general health. Lung cancer surgery is a serious operation that usually involves removing the cancer along with the lymph nodes in the chest. 

Surgery may be offered to you if you have non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) stage 1, 2 or occasionally 3. Your doctor may also offer you lung cancer surgery if you have small cell lung cancer (SCLC), however, this is less common as this type of lung cancer is often diagnosed when the cancer has spread outside of the lung or lungs.

There are a range of treatments available including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy. These may be offered following surgery depending on your type of cancer. Your doctor may recommend a new treatment 3- 5 weeks after surgery.

Recovery after lung cancer surgery

Lung surgery recovery can take weeks. After your initial hospital stay, you will be able to recover at home. Below, we have compiled a guide to your life after lung surgery and ways you can ease the journey.

Drainage tubes and what they mean 

Drips and drainage tubes can be normal when waking up from lung cancer surgery. They can be put in place for blood transfusions, fluid drainage, or to check blood pressure. Your doctor will be able to help you understand any specific drains or tubes you have.

Looking after your wound

Depending on your surgery, you may have dressings over your wound. If this is the case, a nurse will typically change and re-dress this for you. Any wounds you have from your surgery will depend on the type of cancer you have and the surgery you received. 

If you received keyhole surgery, you may have smaller wounds compared to larger wounds and scarring from open surgery. Your nurse will provide you with the correct information on wound care before you leave the hospital.

Pain management

It is normal to be in some pain or discomfort in the following weeks after your surgery, and managing and reducing your pain is an important part of helping your recovery. When it comes to pain, it is always best to be open and honest with your doctors, as they can provide you with the medication best suited to you. 

Painkillers may be provided through a small tube, called a paravertebral catheter whilst you are in hospital and/ or tablets for you to take when you are discharged and return home. Pain can vary on a case-to-case basis, and some patients can be in pain for some time. Let your doctor or specialist nurse know about any changes in pain levels in the weeks following your surgery. 

Leaving the hospital 

Depending on the type of lung surgery you have, when you can head home will vary. The hospital will do its best to get you back on your feet with physiotherapy if needed. You may be encouraged to sit in a chair and be able to stand and walk within a day of your operation.

How long you stay in the hospital will depend on the progress you make during this time. Most patients stay from 3-7 days; however, this can vary from patient to patient. 

When you do leave the hospital, you will need help at first. You are likely to feel tired, but it is important to keep moving around as much as possible with a view of walking outside as soon as you feel ready to. Your doctor or nurse will be able to give you exercises or goals to achieve during this time. 

Driving after lung cancer surgery

It is not recommended to drive after lung cancer surgery. The doctor will advise you as to when you are fit and safe enough to drive as your wounds heal in the weeks after your surgery.

In most cases, you will need to wait 4-6 weeks after surgery before driving again. This can be sooner if you have had keyhole surgery, or longer if your surgery was more invasive. 

Follow up appointments 

With lung cancer surgery, you will usually have follow-up appointments 2-6 weeks after your surgery. During these appointments, your doctor will be able to inform you about the results of your surgery and advise on any further treatments you may need. 

Your mental health matters 

The physical and emotional impact of surgery and having had a lung cancer diagnosis can affect you more than you expected, or differently. It is important for you to use any support services you might need as you adjust and recuperate.

Your follow-up appointments are also chances for you to raise any concerns you have or discuss any worries you might have post-surgery.

If you have any urgent questions or concerns and can’t talk to your doctor or nurse, we offer an Ask the Nurse helpline. Our trained nurses offer help with symptom management and can often be a lifeline for many lung cancer patients.