What Is a Lobectomy?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on March 21, 2023
4 min read

If you have a lung disease, a type of surgery called a lobectomy is one treatment option your doctor may suggest.

Your lungs are made up of five sections called lobes. You have three in your right lung and two in your left. A lobectomy removes one of these lobes. After the surgery, your healthy tissue makes up for the missing section, so your lungs should work as well or better than they did before.

It’s usually the main treatment for people with the early stages of lung cancer, when there’s a tumor in just one part of the lung. In that case, a lobectomy may offer the best chance for a cure and may be the only treatment you need. But it doesn't help when cancer has spread to your whole lung or to other parts of your body.

The surgery may also help people who have other diseases in one part of their lungs, like:

When you have the damaged lobe removed, other parts of your lungs expand, making it easier to breathe.

Doctors can do the surgery in a few different ways. The one that's right for you depends on the type and location of your lung problem as well as your overall health. The types include:

  • Open surgery, called a thoracotomy. Your surgeon makes a long cut along the side of your chest. They spread your ribs apart so they can easily see and remove the affected lobe of your lung.
  • VATS (video-assisted thoracic surgery). Your surgeon does this operation through two to four small cuts in the side of your chest, one about 2 ½ inches long, and the others about a half-inch long. They use a tube with a tiny video camera to see inside and guide their tools. Unlike open surgery, you don't get a big cut in your chest, so you're likely to heal faster with less pain.
  • Robotic surgery. Your surgeon sits at a console next to you and controls robotic arms that do the operation. The procedure uses three or four half-inch cuts between your ribs, so you may have less bleeding, a lower chance of infection, and a faster recovery.

A lobectomy is a major surgery and it has some risks, such as:

  • Infection
  • A collapsed lung, which prevents your lung from filling with air when you breathe in
  • Air or fluid leaking into your chest
  • Pus that forms in the space between your lungs and the wall of your chest

Your chances of having problems after a lobectomy depend on how healthy you are overall, among other things. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the risks that might affect you.

Your doctor will ask you to take tests that check the health of your lungs. Based on the results, they may suggest a program to improve your breathing, called pulmonary rehabilitation, before your operation. You may have more of this rehab or physical therapy after your surgery, too.

Your doctor will also will likely ask you to:

  • Stop smoking at least a month before surgery. If you smoke, you won’t heal quickly, and you’ll be more likely to have problems after the operation.
  • Exercise every day. It helps your lungs work better.
  • Stop taking medicines that thin your blood, like aspirin.

Healing after a lobectomy takes time. If you have open surgery, you may spend up to a week in the hospital. You'll typically go home sooner if you have VATS or robotic surgery.

Other things to think about:

  • Pain . Most people have some discomfort the first few months after surgery. You'll get pain pills when you leave the hospital, but you'll need them less over time. Warm showers are a good way to ease muscle soreness.
  • Fatigue. You'll feel tired and out of breath at first. That's normal and should get better in a few weeks.
  • Constipation. Pain pills and not moving much can cause this problem. Things should return to normal when you stop taking pain medicine. In the meantime, be sure to take the laxatives and stool softeners your doctor prescribes.
  • Exercise. You'll need to walk every day to regain your strength and keep your lungs healthy and clear.