Quality of Life After Lung Cancer Surgery

What Will Life Be Like After Lung Cancer Surgery?

patient resting after surgery with doctor writing on a chart
What is quality of life like after lung cancer surgery?. Istockphoto.com/Stock Photo©KatarzynaBialasiewicz

What will be your quality of life after lung cancer surgery?  Will it be better and could it be worse?  What has been the experience of others who have gone through surgery for lung cancer?

Surgery for Lung Cancer 

Surgery for lung cancer offers a chance for a cure - something that is, unfortunately, uncommon with lung cancer. But in offering this chance, we don't often talk about what happens in the long run after surgery - a time we now call "survivorship."

How good is the quality of life shortly after as well as over the long run for people who have had lung cancer surgery?  What can you expect?

It's important to quickly note that there are several different types of surgery done for lung cancer, These include wedge resection, lobectomy, and pneumonectomy, but here we'll look at lung cancer surgery as a whole.

Quality of Life After Lung Cancer Surgery 

While the quality of life after lung cancer surgery has only recently been evaluated, the result are encouraging.  (It's also encouraging that newer studies are focusing on how someone will "feel" during and after various treatments rather than focusing on survival alone.) 

One study evaluated 830 disease-free lung cancer survivors (disease free meaning that no evidence of cancer (NED) could be found on exam or through imaging studies.)  Of these survivors of stage 0, stage I, stage II, and stage IIIA lung cancer, there was no significant difference in functioning between people who had lung cancer surgery, and those who did not.

 In fact, there was no significant difference in most of the symptoms experienced by the two groups.

Not surprisingly, lung cancer survivors who underwent surgery did have more shortness of breath coughing and chest wall pain than healthy volunteers who did not have surgery.  Of note, is that the surgery groups did suffer from concerns such as financial problems more than the control group as well.

Planning and Preparing for Surgery

If you have not yet had lung cancer surgery, there are things you can do now which may improve your quality of life after surgery.  The first step in preparing to have lung cancer surgery is to make sure you will be having surgery at a cancer center you are confident will do the best job.  Studies tell us that people who have lung cancer surgery at hospitals that perform greater volumes of these surgeries have better outcomes.

Getting a second opinion is important - even if you don't change your mind on where you will have the surgery done.  If you receive similar recommendations, you can be more confident that you have made the right choice. Learn about how to choose a cancer treatment center, and questions you should ask your potential surgeon.

Not all surgeons perform some of the less-invasive-but-potentially-easier-to-tolerate procedures such as VATS (video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery.)  These surgeries require a great amount of practice, and it's important to find a surgeon who has done many of these procedures.  In addition to finding better outcomes among centers which perform greater volumes of lung cancer surgery, results suggest that when surgery can be done via VATS, both recovery times and long-term side effects are reduced.

Quality of Life - VATS vs Thoracotomy

Certainly VATS- video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery - is less invasive than an open thoracotomy, just as laparoscopic surgery is less invasive than open abdominal surgery, but does it make a difference?  A 2016 study says the answer is yes.  People who were able to have lung cancer surgery for stage I non-small cell lung cancer had less post-operative pain and a better quality of life than those who had open surgery.  It's important to note that not all lung cancers can be reached by this method and that sometimes VATS is not the ideal surgery.  Again, getting a second opinion - ideally at a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center - can be a good way to prepare for this surgery.

Common Short Term Effects After Lung Cancer Surgery

The recovery after lung cancer surgery is different for everyone. Most people stay in the hospital for severaly days, with one of the factors making a difference being how long it takes to remove the chest tube left in place after many of these surgeries.  Complications from lung cancer surgery, such as a persistent air leak or blood clots occur occasionally, but your doctor will discuss these possiblitlies as well as what to do if you experience any.

Most people take several months off of work after surgery, to allow for recovery with regard to pain, breathing with less lung capacity, and fatigue.  That said, many people are eventually able to resume active lives.

Potential Long Term Effects After Surgery

As noted above, some shortness of breath is common - especially with activity - afer surgery, and a cough and chest pain may linger for some time.

One of the more annoying late effects after lung surgery is referred to as postpneumonectomy syndrome or post-thoracotomy syndrome.  This sydrome involves chest pain that's felt to be related to the normal process of the body filling in the space left behind where a lung or lobe of a lung once lived.  It is more common in people who have right-sided lung cancer surgery, and research is ongoing looking for ways to both treat and prevent this late effect.

Treating Late Effects - Pulmonary Rehabilitation

In the past, addressing the late effects of cancer treatment was less of a priority.  Many people felt they were told they were lucky to have survived, and were left to cope with late effects alone.  Recently, the importance of survivorship has begun to take much more importance in treatment planning.  While it is a relatively new therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation for people who have had lung cancer surgery (or even before lung cancer surgery) promises to make a difference in the quality of life for people who have these surgeries.

Lung Cancer Recurrence After Surgery

Unfortunately, some lung cancers recur after lung cancer surgery.  After your surgery your doctor will follow you periodically with scans.  You will also be taught the signs of lung cancer reucrrence to be aware of, and when you should call.  Fortunately, there are some things you can do yourself that may lessen the chance of a reucrrence.

Coping After Lung Cancer Surgery

Coping after lung cancer surgery goes far beyond the physicial issues.  Emotionally, it's been found that many cancer survivors experience some degree of posttraumatic stress.  Talk to your doctor if you find that you are living with more anxiety than usual, and check out these tips for coping with "scanxiety" - the term that's been coined to describe the anxiety that comes with needing these follow up scans.  Finances can be hit hard for cancer survivors, and many cancer centers now have specialists who can discuss options with you and how to get assistance.  Keep in mind that progress is being made with lung cancer, and new options both to treat and reduce the risk of recurrence may become available.  Learn how to become your own advocate in your care.  Joining a lung cancer support group or support community is a good way to stay abreast of the changes taking place in oncology.

On a happier note, recent studies have also found that cancer changes people in good ways.  Learn about some of these positive changes that have been found in cancer survivors as you embrace your "new normal."


Bendixen, M., Jorgensen, O., Kronborg, C., Andersen, C., and P. Licht. Postoperative pain and quality of life after lobectomy via video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery or anterolateral thoracotomy for early stage lung cancer: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet Oncology. 2016. 17(6):836-44.

Pompili, C. Quality of life after lung resection for lung cancer. Journal of Thoracic Disease. 2015. 7(Suppl 2):S138-S144.

Pouwels, S., Fiddelaers, J., Teijink, J. et al. Preoperative exercise therapy in lung surgery patients: A systematic review. Respiratory Medicine. 2015. 109(12):1495-504.

Rauma, V., Salo, J., Sintonen, H., Rasanen, J., and I. Ilonen. Patient features predicting long-term survival and health-related quality of life after radical surgery for non-small cell lung cancer. Thoracic Cancer. 2016. 7(3):333-9.

Yun, Y., Kim, Y., Min, Y. et al. Health-related quality of life in disease-free survivors of surgically treated lung cancer compared with the general population. Annals of Surgery. 2012. 255(5):1000-7.

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