Recovery After Lobectomy for Lung Cancer

What Can You Expect After Your Lobectomy?

Doctor smiling in recovery ward
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After your lobectomy, you will go through a recovery period in the hospital and then at home. What can you expect when your surgery is over? What happens in the hospital over the next few days?

If instead, you are looking for information on types of lobectomy and what the procedure is like, check out the linked articles.

Recovery Room

When your surgery is complete, you will be taken to the recovery room where you will be monitored closely for several hours.

Your doctor will talk to your family about your surgery and let them know when you will be transferred to your hospital room. For the first day or so you may be monitored in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Ventilator Use and Breathing After Lobectomy

The breathing tube that allowed the ventilator to breathe for you during surgery is sometimes left in place while you are in recovery. Since this can cause some anxiety, you will be given medications that keep you very drowsy until the tube is removed — usually on the same day as your surgery.

When the ventilator is removed and you become less sleepy, a respiratory therapist will ask you to cough and assist you in the use of an incentive spirometer. This is a device that you breathe into to exercise your lungs and help to keep the small air sacs (the alveoli) in your lungs open.

Hospital Course and Chest Tube

When you are able, the nursing staff will help you sit, and then encourage you to get up and walk with assistance.

You may not feel like being active, but increasing activity will help you regain your strength more quickly and reduce the risk of developing blood clots. Be sure to read this article about ways to prevent and recognize blood clots since these are common after lung cancer surgery.

Your chest tube will be left in place until your surgeon feels that the drainage has stopped and no air is leaking, usually 3 to 4 days following surgery.

Most people spend at least 5 to 7 days in the hospital following an open lobectomy and 3 to 4 days following a video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS).

What Is Recovery From Lobectomy Like?

Returning to your usual lifestyle can be a little frustrating following lung cancer surgery — especially if you were not having a lot of symptoms from your lung cancer prior to the procedure.  Some people have found that it helps to notice progress every day — such as having tubes progressively removed.

You may also notice that the fatigue you experience is unlike fatigue you have coped with previously. Cancer fatigue can be frustrating, especially if you are someone who has a hard time slowing down and taking it easy. It can be very helpful to pace yourself when you return home and focus on the activities which take the most mental or physical energy early on in the day. It can be difficult allowing people to help, but now is not the time to be a hero or the "strong one." Keep in mind that one of the greatest frustrations of loved ones of those with cancer is the sense of helplessness they feel. Delegating some tasks and learning to receive help may not only help you recover faster but can give your loved one something to ease that sense of being unable to do anything to help.

Return to Work

Some people return to work after 6 to 8 weeks, but your doctor will give you special restrictions, such as avoiding any heavy lifting. It will also take time for your remaining lung tissue to take over, and some shortness of breath may persist for several months following surgery. It's a fairly new concept in lung cancer surgery recovery, but pulmonary rehabilitation before or after lung cancer surgery has been found to help many people when done at the appropriate time. You may have to ask your doctor about this option, however, since unlike therapy for heart disease and joint replacements, therapy for cancer survivors is taking longer to catch on.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

When you are released from the hospital, you will be given careful instructions on how to care for yourself at home and instructions on when to follow-up with your doctor. Between appointments, you should call your doctor if you have any symptoms or questions that concern you. Call your doctor right away if you develop a fever, have chest pain that is different from what you have been experiencing, become more short of breath, have any bleeding or redness near your incision, or if you develop any pain in your calves (possible blood clots).


Erhunmwunsee, L. and M. Onaitis. Smoking Cessation and the Success of Lung Cancer Surgery. Current Oncology Reports. 2009. 11(4):269-74.

Sawada, S., Komori, E., Yamashita, M. et al. Comparison in Prognosis After VATS Lobectomy and Open Lobectomy for Stage I Lung Cancer: Retrospective Analysis Focused on a Histological Subgroup. Surgical Endoscopy. 2007. 21(9):1607-1611.

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.

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