Jefferson Health Northeast

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Frequently Asked Questions

I’m having thoracic surgery. What happens during and after the procedure?

Thoracic surgery for lung cancer and other purposes generally takes two to three hours. When the surgeon is finished, a drainage tube is placed to drain excess fluid from the site of surgery. This tube is removed two to four days after the operation.

Following your surgery, you will be transferred to the recovery area where doctors and support staff will monitor you closely. When you have recovered satisfactorily, you will be moved to a hospital bed where you will be cared for until you are discharged. Fatigue is common after surgery but will improve over time. You may feel tired for several weeks after surgery.

Most patients are out of bed and walking the first day after the operation. A nurse or respiratory therapist provides instructions on deep breathing and coughing exercises, which are important to help prevent infection in the lungs. Most patients remain in the hospital for four to five days.

Will I experience pain after surgery?

You should expect to experience some discomfort but we do several things to minimize this. Often, an epidural catheter is placed into the lower back through which pain medication is given. This provides excellent pain relief for the first few days after the operation. Once the catheter is removed, patients usually take pain pills every day for four to six weeks following surgery.

When can I go back to work?

If your job requires heavy lifting, you will need to be off work for at least three months from the date of surgery. However, if your job is less strenuous, you may be able to go back to work in about six to eight weeks. This can be discussed with the doctor at your office visit.

What will my recovery be like?

Patients who are ambulatory before surgery are able to walk on their own and breathe without difficulty after surgery. You may experience some shortness of breath with activity or when you are fatigued. The brain may interpret chest discomfort as a feeling of “shortness of breath” even though the oxygen level and ability to breathe are normal. Over the next few weeks, as you gain strength, this should slowly, but steadily improve.

The incision is usually closed with dissolvable sutures. These sutures do not need to be removed and you can shower or bathe soon after the operation. You should not drive until you no longer require pain medication every day. Although some help around the house for the first week or two may be needed, there is no need for nursing care at home.

You will not be allowed to fly in an airplane or travel to elevation higher than 8,000 feet for at least two weeks, and up to a few months after surgery, as this could cause your lung to collapse. Be sure to ask your doctor about when you will be able to fly in an airplane or travel to high elevation.