What to expect after a lung cancer treatment

For many people living with lung cancer, thinking about the future can be a daunting prospect. However, knowing what’s ahead can help you deal with the present. In this article, we talk about the treatment and post-treatment recovery process for those choosing to have lung cancer surgery.

With approximately 44,500 people diagnosed every year, lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK today. It is also one of the most serious cancers – with only 1-in-20 people surviving for ten years or more following their diagnosis. Despite these odds, treatment can offer the best possible chance of either extending a person’s life or even treating the cancer.

As such, a team of specialists will work out – depending on several factors – what type of treatment would best suit you. In this article, Better Healthcare will talk you through the possible treatment options and, if surgery is an option, what to expect after a lung cancer treatment.

Lung cancer: Need-to-know information

Whether you are personally living with lung cancer or have a loved one who is living with the disease, finding out more about it is often very useful. More knowledge allows you to understand the situation you’re in, make better-informed decisions and prepare you for the necessary treatment.

Lung cancer statistics

While long-term survival rates for lung cancer have remained mostly the same for the past 40 years in England and Wales, short-term survival rates have seen increases. Previously, according to Cancer Research UK, only 16% of men and 15% of women diagnosed survived the first year after diagnosis in the early 1970s. By the early 2010s, that rose to 30% and 35% respectively. In 2015, that figure was thought to be above 1-in-3 people surviving the first year (NHS statistics for the UK).

The five-year survival rate across England and Wales has improved from 5% to 8% in men and 4% to 12% for women between 1971-2011. In the same period, the ten-year survival rate has shifted from 3% to 7% in women but no significant increase in men. While these increases are small, they are still improvements – and research into experimental lung cancer treatments continues.

As stated by NHS.uk, lung cancer is most commonly diagnosed in people with ages ranging between 70 and 74 and is rare in people under the age of 40. Smoking is a primary cause of lung cancer (it accounts for 85% of cases); however, people who have never smoked can also develop lung cancer.

Types of lung cancer treatment

Lung cancer is split into two categories: primary and secondary lung cancer. The former relates to cancer that begins in the lungs; the latter refers to cancer that spreads to the lungs via another place in the body. For this article, we’re going to be talking about primary lung cancer.

There are numerous different types of lung cancers and they’re divided into two groups: non-small-cell lung cancer and small-cell lung cancer. The former accounts for approximately 87% of all cases in the UK, whereas the latter, less common, variant usually spreads faster and fairly early on. Whichever lung cancer you or your loved one has been diagnosed with will dictate the type of treatment offered and recommended by specialists. Other factors that affect this decision include:

  • Its position and size
  • The person’s overall health
  • How advanced the cancer is

For patients with non-small-cell lung cancer, surgery is often offered to remove the cancerous cells if the cancer is confined to one lung and the person is in good physical health. This is usually followed by chemotherapy to destroy other cancer cells that may have lingered. If the person’s overall health isn’t good, but the cancer hasn’t spread that much, radiotherapy (or a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy known as chemoradiotherapy) is often offered.

If the cancer has spread, chemotherapy is the preferred course of action and may be offered multiple times. In other instances, targeted therapy may be recommended. These are medications to help stop or subdue the cancerous cells.

In the less common instance of small-cell lung cancer, chemotherapy (or a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy) is offered to alleviate symptoms and extended the person’s life. Surgery is not common as, by the time small-cell lung cancer is discovered, it has often spread to other areas of the body. In the event it has been spotted early, surgery may be performed.

Types of lung cancer surgery

The types of operations used to treat non-small-cell lung cancer are as follows:

  • Pneumonectomy: The removal of an entire lung. A pneumonectomy is often used when the tumour is in the middle of the lung, within the centre of the chest, or has spread into most areas of the lung.
  • Lobectomy: This is when large parts of the lung are removed. The lung consists of 5 lobes (2 on the left; 3 on the right), and a lobectomy will result in the removal of one or more lobe(s) containing the cancerous tumour.
  • Segmentectomy (wedge resection): A partial removal of a lobe. Only suitable if the cancer is small (as in the early stages) or if it is believed that you lack the lung function to withstand a full lobe removal.
  • Sleeve resection: Treatment of cancer found in lung airways. Involves removing the section where the tumour is contained before it is then ‘sewn’ back together (like a sleeve with a section that was cut out and sewn back together).

No matter what operation you decide upon, it’s essential to remember that it is still possible to breathe as you normally would with just one lung.

The pre-surgical process

You will make the decision to have surgery in conjunction with a team of specialists who will advise you of the best possible options for you and your health. If you do decide to go ahead with lung cancer surgery, then some things need to be covered before you head into the operating theatre.

To test your fitness for an anaesthetic, the likelihood that you’ll make a good recovery and to test your lung function, you will receive several checks. This will often include an electrocardiogram (or ECG) to check that your heart is healthy, and a spirometry – where you breathe into a spirometer to measure how much air your lung(s) can breathe in or out in one breath. You may also receive blood tests, a chest x-ray and an echocardiogram.

You will then visit the hospital to talk to the treatment team in a pre-assessment clinic. This often happens one to two weeks before the operation and will involve you signing a consent form for surgery. It will also allow you to ask any questions that you may have about the procedure. You may also meet the surgeon, the anaesthetist, the nurse and/or the clinical nurse specialist. They typically explain the lung cancer recovery programme and advise on things you can do to help your general health and to help you deal with your operation (e.g. leg and breathing exercises).

When it’s time for your operation, expect to arrive at the hospital either the evening before or the morning of your surgery. You may be given a carbohydrate-rich drink before the operation to help boost your energy and support your surgical lung cancer recovery. You will be given the appropriate medications, injections and fluids (usually via a drip). When it’s time for the operation, your anaesthetist will provide you with the requested method of pain relief, and you will then be guided into the operating theatre for your surgery. By this point, the anaesthesia will have kicked in and you should be in a deep sleep for the duration of the operation.

The post-surgical process

When you wake up from surgery, you’ll find yourself in either a high dependency recovery unit or the intensive care unit. These units are often noisy and disorienting at first, but you will soon be moved to a ward and things will calm down. Due to the medication (painkillers and anaesthetic), you’re likely to feel drowsy as well.

You will notice tubes and drains attached to you, but don’t worry – this is normal and for the good of your health. Additionally, it isn’t uncommon for people to wake up wearing an oxygen mask.

You will have a dressing over your wound – the area where the incision was made – and this dressing will be changed after a couple of days by a nurse. During the first week, you’ll receive painkillers to help you deal with any pain, soreness or discomfort. How long this pain lasts can vary between patients and can also depend upon the type of surgery that was performed on you.

You will be encouraged to get out of bed as soon as it is possible – such as sitting in a chair within 12 hours of the operation and walking around after a couple of days. You’ll only be allowed water within 24 to 48 hours after you wake up, and you’ll then have food and other drinks slowly re-introduced to your diet in the days that follow. Before then, you’ll receive fluids through a drip. You are likely to go home within, or in just over, a week.

Once you’re at home, you’ll likely need some help. Most people feel tired for a few weeks – even months – after lung cancer surgery. However, your strength and ability to do things will increase as the days go by. Additionally, you won’t be able to drive until four to six weeks after the surgery, so it can really help to have someone offering you regular care and support through the recovery period.

How Better Healthcare can help

While friends and family can help support you now and then, it can really help to have a carer who can offer you dedicated support in your everyday activities around the home.

At Better Healthcare, we offer home care and live-in care services to those recovering from lung cancer. Our fully-qualified carers are warm and passionate about what they do, ensuring that your spirits are kept high during the road to recovery following surgery. They’ll help with minor household tasks, support with personal care (e.g. dressing and grooming) and even assist with shopping and prescription collection.

Our home care workers and live-in care workers can work to a bespoke schedule – meaning they’ll only do what you specify, and they can be there for as long or as little time as you need. To find out more about how we can help you (or a loved one) after a lung cancer operation, call us on 0800 668 1234 or get in touch with one of the team at your local office today.

This post is not health advice and should not replace professional advice tailored to your specific circumstances. It is intended to provide information of general interest about current healthcare issues.

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