After lung cancer surgery

It takes a few weeks for you to recover after your operation. You will be in hospital for about two days and will then need more time to recover once you are home.

When you wake up after your operation

After a big operation, you may wake up in a high dependency recovery unit. You usually move back to the ward within a day or so.

In the high dependency unit you have very close nursing care. Your surgeon and anaesthetist review you regularly and watch your progress closely.

These units are busy and often noisy places that some people find strange and disorientating. You'll feel drowsy because of the anaesthetic and painkillers.

Your wound

You might have dressings over your wounds. After a couple of days, your nurse changes the dressings and cleans the wounds.

The size and number of your surgical wounds depend on whether you had open surgery or keyhole surgery. You might have about 3 smaller wounds if you had keyhole surgery. You have at least one wound, a longer incision, with open surgery. 

Most wounds have dissolvable stitches, but you might have stitches or clips that stay in for about 10 days. You can go home with the stitches in if your wound is still healing and you’re otherwise well. A district nurse then takes the stitches out. This could be at home or you might need to go back to your GP surgery.

Before you go home, your nurse gives you information about how to care for the wound.

Tubes and drains

When you wake up, you’ll have several tubes or drains. This can be frightening, so it helps to know what they’re for.

These might include:

  • drips to give you blood transfusions and fluids, usually into a vein in your neck and arms
  • a chest drain – this is a tube attached to a bottle that helps to drain air and fluid from around your wound and to help your lung expand again
  • a tube into your bladder (catheter) to measure how much urine you pass
  • a small tube into an artery to check your blood pressure

You might also have an oxygen mask over your nose and mouth.

Electronic pumps may control any medicines you have through your drip.


It’s normal to have some soreness or pain for the first week or so. You will be given painkillers. 

Tell your doctor or nurse as soon as you feel any pain. They need your help to find the right type and dose of painkiller for you. Painkillers work best when you take them regularly.

Immediately after surgery you might have one or more of the following to control your pain: 

  • continuous painkillers through a drip into your bloodstream – you control this by pressing a button when you have pain (patient controlled analgesia or PCA)
  • painkillers given directly into the area around the lung through a small tube called a paravertebral catheter
  • continuous painkillers through a drip into your bloodstream controlled by a pump to give you a constant dose

You get painkillers to take home. Follow the instructions your nurse gives you about how often and when to take them. Contact your doctor if you still have pain or if it gets worse.

Some people find they have pain for a long time after surgery for lung cancer. Let your doctor or specialist nurse know if your pain continues for more than a few weeks.

Eating and drinking

Once you are fully awake and feel able to, you can have something to eat and drink. You might not feel like eating much at first. You gradually build up what you drink and eat.

Getting up

Your nurses and physiotherapists help you to move around as soon as possible. They check you’re doing your breathing and leg exercises. This helps you recover.

You might be sitting in a chair within 12 hours of your operation. The day after, you’ll be walking around your bed. And within a few days you’ll be able to walk along the hospital corridor.

Making progress

During the first few days after your operation you’ll start to feel better. The drips and drains come out, you start eating, and you can move about a bit more.

You’ll begin to feel that you’re making progress. How long you stay in hospital will depend on your progress. It could be anything from 3 to 7 days. 

Going home

You’ll need help when you first go home.

You’re likely to feel very tired for several weeks and sometimes months after your surgery. It helps to do a bit more every day.


  • sitting for less time each day
  • walking around the house a bit more each day
  • building up to walking outside

What you can do depends on how fit you were before your surgery and any problems you have afterwards. Talk to the physiotherapist or your doctor if you’re unsure about what you should be doing.

Contact your doctor or specialist nurse if you have any problems or symptoms you are unsure about.


After surgery to your chest you shouldn’t drive until the effects of the anaesthetic and painkillers have worn off. Your wounds must have healed well. At first the seat belt may press on your wound and make it sore.

Your doctor will tell you when you can start driving again but it is usually about 4 to 6 weeks after surgery. It might be sooner than this after keyhole surgery. Some insurance companies also specify that you shouldn’t drive for a certain amount of time after chest surgery. So it is important to check with your car insurance company.

Follow up

You have a follow up appointment about 2 to 6 weeks after your surgery.

At the follow up appointment your surgeon:

  • gives you the results of the surgery
  • examines you
  • asks you how you are and if you have had any problems

The appointment is also your chance to ask the doctor questions about your surgery. Write down any questions you have before your appointment to help you remember what you want to ask. Taking someone with you can help you to remember what the doctor says.

How often you have checkups after that depends on the results of your surgery. Ask your doctor or specialist nurse how often you need to have checkups and what they will involve.

If you are worried about anything or notice any new symptoms between appointments, let your doctor or nurse know as soon as possible. You don’t have to wait until the next appointment.

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