What Is a Pneumonectomy?

What to expect when undergoing this procedure

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A pneumonectomy is a type of lung cancer surgery in which an entire lung is removed. Typically, a pneumonectomy is only recommended when a less invasive procedure cannot remove the entire tumor. Occasionally, this surgery may also be performed to treat other conditions such as tuberculosis, severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or trauma that interrupts major blood vessels near the lungs.

While a pneumonectomy is a major surgical procedure, you can live a full, active life with one lung by making some lifestyle adjustments.

Purpose of a Pneumonectomy

A pneumonectomy is most commonly done as a treatment for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that hasn't spread outside of lung tissue.

Your doctor may recommend removing one entire lung for several reasons:

  • Tumors have spread and are significantly affecting the pulmonary artery or airways.
  • Tumors are in the middle of a lung (near the hilum) and can't be reached via a wedge resection or lobectomy, which are less-invasive procedures.
  • The tumor is too large to be cut away from the lung tissue, as is done with other types of lung cancer surgery.

The procedure is usually reserved for those who will have adequate lung function in the remaining lung and will be able to tolerate living with only one lung.

A pneumonectomy may seem like a radical treatment option. However, if you have tumors that cannot be completely destroyed through a more conservative procedure, removing the lung offers the best outcome.

Types

There are two main types of pneumonectomy procedures that doctors perform for lung cancer treatment:

  • Standard pneumonectomy: One lung is completely removed, either the right lung (which contains three lobes) or the left lung (containing two lobes).
  • Extrapleural pneumonectomy: One lung is removed along with part of the diaphragm, the membrane lining the chest cavity (pleura), and part of the membrane lining the heart (pericardium). This procedure is most often done for mesothelioma, a form of cancer that begins in the lining surrounding the lungs.

A minimally invasive approach to lung cancer surgery called video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) is often used for lobectomies, but it can also be done to remove a lung in cases where the surgeon is highly skilled.

Several small incisions are made in the chest and, with the aid of a camera, the lung is removed with special instruments. Recovery is usually easier with VATS than with a pneumonectomy.

However, VATS is used primarily to removed early-stage tumors near the outside of the lung and only rarely for the removal of an entire lung.

Risks and Contraindications

Because it is a major medical procedure, a pneumonectomy for lung cancer does pose some risks. Your doctor will discuss these with you before your surgery.

Some potential complications include:

Studies of mesothelioma patients who have undergone extrapleural pneumonectomy procedures show that there are different risks depending on which lung is removed.

Specifically, those who have their right lung removed are significantly more likely to develop bronchopleural fistula, the development of an abnormal passageway between the bronchi (the large airways in the lungs) and the space between the membranes that line the lungs.

In rare instances, patients may develop a condition called post-thoracotomy (a.k.a. postpneumonectomy syndrome) in which their airway is obstructed as organs shift because of the space left vacant from the lung removal. This can result in long-term pain.

Researchers have been actively searching for effective ways to treat this problem and provide people who suffer from it with some relief via additional surgery.

Pneumonectomy in Older Adults

When choosing treatments for older adults with lung cancer, a pneumonectomy is often discouraged because there's a very low survival rate for those over 70. However, research shows that these patients aren't any more likely to have complications during surgery.

When other types of operations wouldn't be successful, older adults should not be denied lung-removal surgery because of their age. It may offer the best chance for improving their quality and length of life.

Before a Pneumonectomy

In preparing for your pneumonectomy for lung cancer, you'll visit with your doctor and have several tests done to make sure the procedure is as successful as possible. It's very helpful to bring a list of questions with you to preoperative appointments to make sure any concerns you have are not overlooked.

Testing and Exam

Since surgery is not the usual treatment for lung cancer that has spread beyond the lungs, your doctor will recommend tests to rule out any metastasis (spread of cancer).

These may include a bone scan to look for the spread of lung cancer to bone, a brain scan to rule out brain metastases, and an abdominal scan to rule out liver metastases and adrenal metastases.

Tests will then be done to make sure you will be able to tolerate living with only one lung. Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) will evaluate your healthy lung and determine its ability to deliver adequate oxygen to your body alone.

Your doctor may also recommend tests to make sure your heart is functioning well since surgery can add stress to the heart. A careful history, physical exam, and lab work will be done to make sure you are as healthy as possible.

After studying the results of your tests, your doctor will carefully discuss the benefits and risks of surgery.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

If you have time to pursue pulmonary rehabilitation prior to your pneumonectomy, your surgeon may recommend this. According to research, preoperative pulmonary rehabilitation reduces the risk of surgical complications related to lung cancer surgery by half.

Therapies included in pulmonary rehab may differ depending on your circumstance, but they can include things like breathing exercise instruction, endurance building, and more.

Pre-Surgery Modifications

If you are on any medications that can increase bleeding, such as Coumadin (warfarin), aspirin, or anti-inflammatory medications such as Advil (ibuprofen), your doctor will recommend discontinuing these for a period of time before your surgery.

Disclose all medications you are on, as well as any herbal remedies or nutritional supplements you are using, since some of these can thin your blood as well.

If you smoke, your physician will strongly recommend that you quit as soon as possible prior to your surgery. Studies have shown that lung cancer surgery is more successful and has fewer complications when patients stop smoking beforehand.

The night before your pneumonectomy, your doctor will recommend that you fast—that is, not eat or drink anything (even water) for at least eight hours before your surgery time.

During the Procedure

When you arrive at the hospital for your pneumonectomy, you will check in and likely have to fill out some paperwork, if not done already.

Once you are called, the operating room staff will guide your family to a waiting area where the surgical staff can keep them updated on your progress and speak with them when your surgery is done.

Pre-Surgery

Before your procedure, a nurse will ask you several questions and place an IV (intravenous line) in your arm. They will also fit you with monitors so that your blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels can be monitored throughout surgery.

Your surgeon will visit to discuss the procedure and ask you to sign a consent form.

The anesthesiologist will also visit to talk about the anesthesia you will be given and ask about any problems you or your family members have experienced with anesthesia in the past.

Throughout the Surgery

In the operating room, you will be given a general anesthetic to put you to sleep, and an endotracheal tube will be placed through your mouth into your healthy lung to allow a ventilator to breathe for you during surgery.

A long incision that follows the curve of your ribs will be made along the side of your body that has the affected lung. The surgeon will spread your ribs and may remove a portion of a rib to gain access to your lung.

When your lung is adequately exposed, the surgical team will collapse the lung that contains the cancer. The major arteries and veins traveling to your lung will be tied off, and the bronchus leading to the lung will be tied off and sewn shut.

After your lung is removed, the surgeon will carefully check to make sure all bleeding is controlled and close the incisions.

The remaining space where your lung had been will gradually fill with fluid.

Post-Surgery

When your surgery is complete, you'll be taken to the recovery room where you will be monitored closely for several hours. In some cases, you may be taken directly to the intensive care unit (ICU).

After the Surgery

Most people spend the first several days in the ICU after a pneumonectomy. For the first day, your breathing may be assisted with a ventilator. Since this can cause some anxiety, you may continue to be lightly sedated until the tube is removed.

When the ventilator is removed and you become less sleepy, a respiratory therapist will ask you to cough and will assist you in the use of an incentive spirometer. This is a device that you breathe into in order to exercise your lungs and to help keep the small air sacs in your lungs open. Using an incentive spirometer can also reduce your risk of atelectasis, or partial collapse of your remaining lung after surgery.

When you are able, the nursing staff will help you sit up and then encourage you to get up and walk with assistance. You want to take it slow, but gradually increasing your activity will help you regain your strength more quickly and will reduce the risk of developing blood clots.

You will either have a pneumatic compression device (a contraption wrapped around your legs that repeatedly squeezes and lets go of your legs) or be given compression stockings to lower your risk of clots as well. While both the device and stockings can be uncomfortable, it's recommended that they are kept on whenever you are in bed until you are again active.

Returning Home

Most people spend at least six to 10 days in the hospital following surgery.

Some people return to work after eight weeks but not without special restrictions, such as avoiding any heavy lifting.

Exercise is not completely restricted long term, however. In fact, researchers have found that post-operative high-intensity training can significantly improve lung function and oxygen intake. Clear any activity plans with your doctor.

It will take time for your remaining lung to "take over," and shortness of breath may persist for several months following surgery. Pulmonary rehabilitation may again be recommended after surgery, as it may help improve both your lung function and quality of life.

When to Call Your Doctor

When you are released from the hospital, you will be given careful instructions on how to care for yourself at home and 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 increasingly short of breath, have any bleeding or redness near your incision, or if you develop any pain in your calves (possible blood clots).

Prognosis

The five-year survival rate after a pneumonectomy is between 21% and 38%.

The prognosis depends on many factors. Some of these include:

  • Which lung is removed: The prognosis is better for a left pneumonectomy than a right pneumonectomy.
  • Stage of the lung cancer
  • Your sex: Women tend to have better outcomes than men.
  • Type of lung cancer: Adenocarcinomas have a worse prognosis than squamous carcinomas.
  • Your health prior to surgery

Recurrence of cancer in the healthy lung is not common after a pneumonectomy, but sometimes lung cancer may recur in distant regions of the body. Adjuvant chemotherapy may help improve long-term survival.

A Word From Verywell

A pneumonectomy is, obviously, a major surgery that will have an impact on your life. But it may be helpful to hear that many people are leading active lives with one lung—some even climbing mountains.

Before considering a pneumonectomy, doctors are very careful to thoroughly evaluate whether a person is a good candidate for the procedure. If a pneumonectomy has been recommended, it's likely that your doctor believes you're in good health and will be able to tolerate the procedure and recover strong.

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Additional Reading
  • Devita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th edition. 2018.Wolters Klewers Health.