Lobectomy Complications and Prognosis

What Complications Might I Experience After My Lobectomy?

Patient receiving oxygen treatment after lobectomy
What are some potential complications and what is the prognosis of a lobectomy for lung cancer?. PhotoAlto/Michele Constantini/Getty Images

Article 5 - Lobectomy Complications

What are the possible complications of a lobectomy, and what is the prognosis after surgery? This article covers the potential complications that may occur both during and after a lobectomy procedure, and the overall prognosis of this type of lung cancer surgery. If you are looking for other information about a lobectomy, check out these articles:

Because a lobectomy is a major surgical procedure, complications are common. Your surgeon will discuss these with you prior to your surgery, and talk about why he feels the benefits of surgery outweighs the risk that you may experience any serious problems following surgery.  

Potential Complications of Lobectomy

There are several possible complications possible with a lobectomy. Keep in mind that many people do not have any of these complications. They are listed here only as possible concerns so that you are aware of potential complications, and not to frighten you. Your doctor would not be recommending surgery if she felt the risks outweighed the benefits of surgery, and at this time surgery is the only treatment for lung cancer which offers the chance for a cure of the disease.

If you are feeling anxious, it can be very helpful to connect with the lung cancer community. You can access people to talk with via lung cancer organizations such as LUNGevity, the Lung Force of the American Lung Association, or the Lung Cancer Alliance, or seek out others to talk with via social media.

 When looking for lung cancer support use the hashtag #LCSM. This is a very active community spanning the spectrum from oncologists, thoracic surgeons, and researchers, to patients and advocates for lung cancer.

Again, complications are not uncommon, but surgical techniques are continually improving. If it possible for you to have video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) this procedure has fewer complications and a shorter recovery time. Not all surgeons are comfortable doing VATS procedures, and not all lung cancers can be removed with this method. What we do know is that lung cancer surgeries done at medical procedures where a greater number of these surgeries are done has resulted in better outcomes.

Prolonged ventilator dependence - A need to be on a respirator for a prolonged period of time after surgery is a common concern for people having lung cancer surgery. 

Persistent air leak - After surgery, there is sometimes a persistent air leak requiring a chest tube to be left in place longer than planned.

Infections - Infections, especially pneumonia and wound infections, are fairly common complications of surgery. Your doctor will watch you very closely for signs of infection after your surgery, and will instruct you to call right away if you should develop a fever or any other new symptoms following your return home.

Empyema - An empyema refers to the presence of pus in the pleural cavity (the area between the membranes which line the lungs.

Bronchopleural fistula - A bronchopleural fistula is an abnormal connection that may occur between the bronchi (the large airways entering the lungs) and the pleural space (the area between the 2 membranes that line the lungs.

Lobar torsion - Lobar torsion is a side effect of surgery in which part of the lung which remains after surgery becomes twisted. A torsion is a medical emergency but is,​ fortunately, a rare complication.

Bleeding - Bleeding following surgery may occur in some people, and on occasion, it is necessary to go back to the operating room so that your surgeons can explore your surgical site for evidence of bleeding and make any needed repairs.

Risks of general anesthesia - Since lung cancer surgery - whether via a thoracotomy or VATS - is done under general anesthesia, it is important to be aware of potential complications of general anesthesia.

Heart problems - Heart attacks, abnormal heart rhythms, and stroke are all potential complications.

Deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism - Blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis - DVT) are much too common among people who have surgery, and those who have lung cancer have an increased risk of DVTs in the first place. The real trouble arises when these blood clots break off and travel to the lungs. Wherever you are in your cancer journey, check out these tips on reducing the risk of blood clots with cancer.

Kidney problems - Kidney problems such as kidney failure may occur due to several mechanisms related to lung cancer surgery, especially when other conditions such as dehydration are present.

Long Term Complications

Most complications of surgery are experienced in the days right after surgery, but some may persist, or develop later on. Roughly half of people experience some degree of persistent pain in their chest after surgery. Postpneumonectomy syndrome or thoracotomy pain syndrome are the terms used to describe these sensations which are usually treated by a combination of therapies. 

Lobectomy Prognosis

The prognosis following a lobectomy depends on many factors. Some of these include which lobe is removed, the stage of the cancer, sex (women tend to do better than men), and how healthy you are in general prior to surgery.

In one large study, the 5-year survival rates for stage 1 lung cancer were 95 percent for VATS lobectomy and 82 percent for open lobectomy (this difference didn’t mean that VATS lobectomy was superior, however, since patients with more extensive cancers were treated with an open lobectomy).


Erhunmwunsee, L. and M. Onaitis. Smoking cessation and the success of lung cancer surgery. Current Oncology Reports. 2009. 11(4):269-74.

Whitson, B. et al. Surgery for early-stage non-small cell lung cancer: a systematic review of the video-assisted thoracoscopy surgery versus thoracotomy applications to lobectomy. Annals of Thoracic Surgery. 2008. 86(6):2008-16.

Ziamik, E., and E. Grogan. Postlobectomy Early Complications. Thoracic Surgery Clinics. 2015. 25(3):355-64.

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