Mark Ferguson, MD, thoracic surgeon, in surgery
Thoracic surgeon Mark K. Ferguson, MD, right, is an authority on lung cancer surgery, including minimally invasive and robotic methods that require smaller incisions than traditional open techniques.

Surgery is often recommended for people with lung cancer. For patients with non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for 80 percent of lung cancer cases, it is often the best treatment choice.

Lung resection is most often considered for patients with the earliest stage of lung cancer. During the procedure, doctors remove the section of the lung that contains the cancer. Depending on the type of surgical procedure (open or minimally invasive), most patients stay in the hospital two to five days and return to their normal activity levels in about four weeks. The majority of people who have resections can resume a normal lifestyle after surgery.

Minimally Invasive Lung Cancer Surgery

Our surgeons are experts in minimally invasive surgery to remove lung cancer. This includes video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), which requires only three small incisions. Another method is robotic surgery, which also is performed through small incisions. With this technique, a surgeon can remove a cancerous part of the lung through an incision less than two inches long.

Studies show that patients who have minimally invasive lung cancer surgery go home sooner than patients who have traditional lung surgery through a large incision. They also experience considerably less pain and fewer complications after surgery. These benefits are why our surgeons use minimally invasive techniques for approximately 75 percent of major lung resection operations — a remarkable achievement compared with the nationwide average of 50 percent.

Patients with early stage small cell lung cancer who have not had previous chemotherapy or radiation are often ideal candidates for these minimally invasive approaches. Even if a patient is not eligible for VATS, our surgeons can perform lung surgery using a small incision in the side of the chest, between the ribs. This helps minimize pain and speeds the healing process.

Minimally invasive approaches to lung resection result in reduced postoperative complication rates and reduced postoperative length of hospital stay compared to traditional open resections [Fernandez 2016; Wolf 2018]. The cost of hospital care is also lower for minimally invasive approaches [Farjah 2014].

Experience Matters

Studies show that the immediate outcomes of lung surgery are better — and the likelihood of being cured is higher — when a board-certified thoracic surgeon (rather than a general or cardiac surgeon) performs the operation [Farjah 2009; Tieu 2012]. UChicago Medicine lung cancer surgeons are board-certified thoracic surgeons who focus on treating diseases only of the lungs and chest.

Outcomes are also better when lung cancer surgery is performed at a high-volume center such as UChicago Medicine, compared to one that doesn’t perform these operations frequently. High volume is associated with fewer postoperative complications and a better chance of cancer cure [Smith 2017].

Understanding Lung Cancer

Medical oncologist Christine Bestvina, MD, thoracic surgeon Jessica Donington, MD, and patient Kathy Tentinger joined us for a candid conversation on lung cancer screening, novel lung cancer treatment options and the latest clinical trials offered at UChicago Medicine.

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