Lung cancer surgery has the goal of curing lung cancer. The procedure may involve a doctor making large incisions or using minimally invasive techniques. They can remove a whole lung or sections of it. Risks include heavy bleeding and blood clots.

Lung cancer is when lung cells grow and divide abnormally quickly, forming a tumor. Some people with lung cancer can benefit from surgery, although it is not always an appropriate treatment option.

This article discusses lung cancer surgery and who may benefit. It also outlines the main types, methods, and risks.

A surgeon preparing for lung cancer surgery.Share on Pinterest

There are two main types of lung cancer:

Both types develop in stages, with earlier stages being less serious.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), surgery is an effective treatment for early-stage NSCLC. However, doctors rarely recommend surgery as the main treatment for SCLC. This is because it is very difficult to diagnose early-stage SCLC, and the cancer has usually spread by the time of diagnosis.

Some people might not have adequate heart and lung function to undergo lung cancer surgery safely. Doctors assess these capacities before recommending surgery.

Learn about the differences between SCLC and NSCLC here.

As the ACS explains, surgery aims to cure lung cancer.

Lung cancer tumors develop from clumps of cancer cells, and in early stage lung cancer, there are fewer tumors. By removing these tumors, surgeons can sometimes prevent tumors from developing further.

Doctors have developed two principal methods for accessing lung cancer tumors:


According to a 2022 review, a thoracotomy involves making an incision between a person’s ribs.

The incision travels through skin, muscle, and lung tissue. In some cases, surgeons may detach a rib from the breastbone before spreading that rib aside. This improves the surgeon’s access to the lungs.

Minimally invasive surgery

The ACS notes that thoracotomies can involve large incisions, which may cause significant blood loss, severe pain, and long recovery times. To minimize these effects, surgeons sometimes use minimally invasive lung cancer surgeries:

  • Video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS): Surgeons operate using a thoracoscope — a small, flexible tube containing a light and video camera. It allows for greater surgical precision.
  • Robot-assisted thoracic surgery (RATS): Surgeons use a thoracoscope alongside a robotic system. Images from the thoracoscope allow the surgeon to operate by controlling robotic arms.

There is mounting evidence that minimally invasive surgeries work well. For example, a 2018 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology compared VATS with thoracotomies. It found them to be equally effective at treating stage 1 lung cancer.

Learn more about robotic surgery for lung cancer here.

Types of lung cancer surgery differ in how much lung tissue surgeons remove. The ACS lists the following types:

  • Pneumonectomy: Surgeons remove an entire lung. This may be necessary if the tumor is toward the center of the chest.
  • Lobectomy: A person’s lungs comprise five lobes. In a lobectomy, surgeons remove a tumor-containing lobe. This is the ideal form of lung cancer surgery. It preserves much lung function while potentially removing large swathes of cancer cells.
  • Segmentectomy or wedge resection: Surgeons remove only parts of a lobe. This surgery can be helpful for people without much lung function, as these individuals may be unable to withstand a lobectomy.
  • Sleeve resection: If a tumor is in a large airway in the lungs, surgeons cut out the affected section of the airway and join the two open ends together.

In any lung cancer operation, surgeons may also remove nearby lymph nodes. A healthcare professional can then analyze them in a laboratory to determine whether the cancer has spread.

Learn more about SCLC surgery here.

Lung cancer surgery is a major procedure that carries certain risks, even when surgeons use minimally invasive techniques. According to the ACS, these risks include:

Very rarely, people can die from complications of lung cancer surgery. Most people recover within several weeks or months. For some people with other lung conditions, however, surgery may cause a long-term reduction in lung function.

People may wish to talk with a doctor about the benefits and drawbacks of surgery in their particular case. It may be helpful to discuss the following issues:

  • whether surgery could cure the lung cancer
  • which method of lung cancer surgery would be available and appropriate
  • what the possible risks might be
  • the cost of surgery
  • whether Medicare or health insurance may cover the cost

Doctors should also provide information about the risks and benefits of nonsurgical treatments.

Learn about financial assistance for people with lung cancer.

Lung cancer surgery aims to remove lung tumors. In some cases, this can completely cure early stage lung cancers.

To access the lungs, surgeons may create a large incision between the ribs in a thoracotomy. Surgeons also use minimally invasive methods, which can be equally effective and easier to tolerate.

During lung cancer surgery, surgeons might remove an entire lung. Ideally, however, they remove a lobe. In some cases, surgeons only remove part of a lobe or a section of a large airway in the lung.

Surgery has risks, including excessive bleeding, infections, and blood clots. People with lung cancer must balance these risks against the potential benefits of surgery.