Lung Cancer

Side effects of lung cancer surgery

Most people experience some pain or discomfort after major surgery for lung cancer but it is usually well controlled with medication. However, pain can go on for quite some time. One man felt pain in his left side, and numbness where he had his scar, for at least twelve months after his lobectomy. There has been some increase in some cancer centres of the use of video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) for lobectomies which may reduce the amount of pain after a procedure.

Many painkillers cause constipation. One woman said that her terrible constipation may have been caused by morphine she received after her lobectomy, though she didn't have very much of it.

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Breathlessness may be caused by the cancer itself or by the treatment given. Most people who had undergone surgery said that at times they felt short of breath, particularly on exercise. A man who had had a pneumonectomy found that physiotherapy helped him to expand the lung capacity of his remaining lung. (See also 'Breathlessness and how to manage it').

People may feel tired and worried after surgery, and one man recalled feeling a bit depressed after the operation because of a sense of loss. 

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Complications sometimes follow surgery. For example, one man described developing an infection. Another man suffered months of discomfort because when his Hickman line was removed the filter was left behind in a vein in his shoulder. Another man developed a fistula (an abnormal opening) at the point where the lung had been removed. 

Very rarely, patients suffer a collapsed lung after surgery. One woman was connected to a machine to suck air out of the pleural cavity. Eventually she had to have a talc pleurodesis operation (see 'Pleural effusion and pleurodesis for lung cancer').

Occasionally, nerves are damaged during surgery, which may affect the vocal cords, voice, and swallowing. One man had a thyroplasty operation, during which a prosthesis was inserted into the trachea under local anaesthetic. Thyroplasty is a minimally invasive surgical procedure that pushes the impaired vocal cord to the midline in order to make contact with the mobile vocal cord.

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A man who had an extra-pleural pneumonectomy for mesothelioma described some of the side effects he experienced after surgery. After nine days he developed an abnormally fast heartbeat. After his condition had improved he was told that this was a common problem after this type of major surgery. He wished he had been warned that this could happen. He also suffered from severe wind pains, occasional acid reflux, and backache. Sometime after surgery he also developed a cough and an unexplained rash.


Last reviewed May 2016.
Last updated May 2016.

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