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What is a lobectomy?

A lobectomy is a surgery to remove one of the lobes of the lungs. The lungs have sections called lobes. The right lung has 3 lobes. The left lung has 2 lobes. A lobectomy may be done when a problem is found in just part of a lung. The affected lobe is removed, and the remaining healthy lung tissue can work as normal.

A lobectomy is most often done during a surgery called a thoracotomy. During this type of surgery, the chest is opened.

In most cases, during a lobectomy the cut (incision) is made at the level of the affected lobe. The incision is most often made on the front of the chest under the nipple and wraps around the back under the shoulder blade. The surgeon gets access to the chest cavity through the exposed ribs to remove the lobe.

In some cases, a video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) is used to do a lobectomy. This is a less-invasive procedure. With this type of surgery, 3 or 4 small incisions are used instead of one large incision. Small tools are put into the chest cavity. One of the tools is called a thoracoscope. It’s a tube with a light and a tiny camera that sends images to a computer screen. This shows the internal organs on the screen. The small tools are used through the other incisions to do the surgery.

Why might I need a lobectomy?

A lobectomy may be done when a problem has been found in one lobe. A lobe may be removed to avoid spread of disease to the other lobes. This may be the case with tuberculosis or certain types of lung cancer.

Health conditions of the chest and lungs that may be treated with lobectomy include:

  • Tuberculosis (TB). This is an ongoing (chronic) bacterial infection that usually infects the lungs.
  • Lung abscess. This is an area of pus that may form in the lung. If the abscess does not go away with antibiotic medicine, it may need to be removed.
  • Emphysema. This is a chronic illness caused by the breakdown of the elastic fibers in the lungs. This makes it harder for the lungs to move when you breathe.
  • Benign tumor. This is a growth that is not cancer. It that can press on large blood vessels and affect the function of other organs.
  • Lung cancer. This is a type of cancer that may affect the bronchi, one or more lobes of the lungs, the pleural lining, or other lung tissue. If not treated, it can spread to other parts of the body.
  • Fungal infection. Fungi can grow in the body and cause infections.

Your healthcare provider may have other reasons to advise a lobectomy.

What are the risks of a lobectomy?

All procedures have some risks. The risks of this procedure may include:

  • Infection
  • Air in the space between the lung covering (pleural space) that causes the lung to collapse (pneumothorax)
  • Bleeding
  • A tube-like opening between the airway (bronchus) and pleural space that causes air or fluid to leak into the chest (bronchopleural fistula)
  • An area of pus in the chest cavity (empyema)

Your risks may vary depending on your general health and other factors. Ask your healthcare provider which risks apply most to you. Talk with him or her about any concerns you have.

How do I get ready for a lobectomy?

Your healthcare provider will explain the procedure to you. Ask him or her any questions you have. You may be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the procedure. Read the form carefully. Ask questions if anything is not clear.

Tell your healthcare provider if you:

  • Are pregnant or think you may be pregnant
  • Are allergic to contrast dye or iodine
  • Are sensitive to or allergic to any medicines, latex, tape, or anesthetic medicines (local and general)
  • Take any medicines, including prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and herbal supplements
  • Have had a bleeding disorder
  • Take blood-thinning medicine (anticoagulant), aspirin, or other medicines that affect blood clotting

Make sure to:

  • Stop taking certain medicines before the procedure, if instructed by your healthcare provider
  • Not eat or drink for 8 hours before the procedure, or as instructed by your healthcare provider
  • Stop smoking
  • Plan to have someone drive you home from the hospital
  • Follow any other instructions your healthcare provider gives you

You may have blood tests or other tests or exams before the procedure. Your healthcare provider will tell you more.

What happens during a lobectomy?

You may have your procedure as an outpatient. This means you go home the same day. Or it may be done as part of a longer stay in the hospital. The way the procedure is done may vary. It depends on your condition and your healthcare provider's methods. In most cases, the procedure will follow this process:

  1. You will be asked to remove your clothes. You will be given a hospital gown to wear. You may be asked to remove jewelry or other objects.
  2. You will lie down on an operating table.
  3. An intravenous (IV) line will be put into your arm or hand.
  4. You may be given antibiotics before and after the procedure.
  5. You will be given general anesthesia. This is medicine that prevents pain and lets you sleep through the procedure.
  6. A breathing tube will be put into your throat and hooked up to a breathing machine (ventilator). Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing will be watched during the procedure.
  7. A soft, flexible tube (catheter) may be put into your bladder. This is to drain urine during the procedure.
  8. Hair in the area of surgery may be trimmed. The skin in the area will be cleaned with an antiseptic solution.
  9. A cut (incision) will be made on the front of your chest at the level of the lobe to be removed. The incision will go under your arm around to your back.
  10. When the ribs can be seen, a special tool will be used to spread them apart. The lung lobe will be removed.
  11. One or more tubes may be put into your chest. These are to help remove air and fluid after surgery.
  12. The skin incision will be closed with stitches (sutures) or staples. A bandage or dressing will be put on the area.
  13. A thin tube (epidural catheter) may be put in. This is done to send pain medicine into your back. It may be done in the operating room or in the recovery room.

What happens after a lobectomy?

After the procedure, you will spend some time in a recovery room. You may be sleepy and confused when you wake up from general anesthesia or sedation. Your healthcare team will watch your vital signs, such as your heart rate and breathing. You’ll be given pain medicine if you need it. A chest X-ray may be done right after the surgery. This is to make sure your lungs are okay. You will stay in the hospital for several days.

You may have one or more chest tubes near the incision to drain air or fluid from the chest. The chest tubes may cause pain when you move, cough, or breathe deeply. They will be taken out before you leave the hospital.

You will be taught deep-breathing exercises and coughing methods to help your lungs re-expand after surgery. This is to help breathing and prevent pneumonia. You may need oxygen for a period of time after surgery. In most cases, the oxygen will be stopped before you go home. Or, you may need to go home with oxygen.

You will be told to move around as much as you can while in bed, and get out of bed and walk as soon as you can. This will help your lungs heal faster.

You may be given fluids to drink a few hours after surgery. You will be given food to eat as you are able.

Before you leave the hospital, you’ll make an appointment for a follow-up visit with your healthcare provider. You will go home when your healthcare provider says it’s OK. Someone will need to drive you home.

At home, keep the incision clean and dry. Your healthcare provider will give you bathing instructions. The stitches or staples will be removed during a follow-up appointment. The incision may be sore for several days. Your chest and shoulder muscles may ache, especially with deep breathing, coughing, and activity. You can take pain medicine as advised by your healthcare provider. Aspirin and certain other pain medicines may increase bleeding. Make sure to take only the medicines your healthcare provider advises.

Keeping doing the breathing exercises you learned in the hospital. Slowly increase your physical activity as tolerated. It may take several weeks to return to normal. You may need to avoid lifting heavy items for several months. This is to prevent strain on your chest muscles and the incision.

While you’re healing, take steps to prevent exposure to:

  • Upper respiratory infections, such as colds and flu
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Chemical fumes
  • Environmental pollution

Call your healthcare provider if you have any of the below:

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • Redness or swelling of the incision
  • Blood or other fluid leaking from the incision
  • Pain around the incision that gets worse
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain with breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Confusion or other change in mental state
  • Green, yellow, or blood-tinted sputum (phlegm)

Your healthcare provider may give you other instructions after the procedure.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure
  • The reason you are having the test or procedure
  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure and who will do it
  • When and how will you get the results
  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure
Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara M. RN, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Jones, Niya, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/5/2014
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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