One of the newest and most advanced ways to fight lung cancer is also one of the most patient-friendly procedures available today. Patients facing surgery to remove part of the lung or surrounding lymph nodes now have a minimally invasive option that not only lessens recovery times but provides the same " or better " outcomes than older methods. The new anatomic lobectomy procedure allows a physician to use Video-Assisted Thoracic Surgery (VATS), in which the entire operation takes place through several incisions, each approximately the diameter of a large pencil. The cancerous lobe and lymph nodes are removed through one of the holes, while another is used for video monitoring. The patient normally can leave the hospital in two to three days.
'This method of surgery has been used in the abdomen for years, but we as thoracic surgeons have been slow to adapt this to the chest. The complexity of the chest makes it extremely difficult," says Dr. Michael Brothers, an East Jefferson General Hospital (EJGH) thoracic surgeon and the only physician in the area who performs this specific surgery.
The traditional method of performing an anatomic lobectomy on the lungs requires a large incision and surgeons have to cut through a patient's chest muscles and spread the ribs to expose the area to be removed. It then requires the patient to remain in the hospital for up to two weeks.
Brothers says he has performed thousands of lung operations and finds the new procedure to be the most significant development in his career as a chest surgeon. 'This used to be perhaps the most painful surgery a person could have," he says. 'Now, my patient's experience is almost pain-free, they awaken immediately after the procedure and, most importantly, it has been a tremendously successful surgery. Currently, you can't make this surgery any smaller."
Dr. James McCullough, an EJGH pulmonologist, agrees and adds that the VATS technique gives new hope to patients who may have difficulty coping with the more invasive traditional procedure.
'In my experience, VATS has shortened hospital stays, resulted in less post-operative discomfort and has improved patient outcomes," he says. 'It has allowed me to help patients previously considered at prohibitively high risk for surgical resection. Older, more chronically ill patients have done well and have had curative resections."
For 76-year-old Elbert Ainsworth, the surgery went better than he could have imagined. He had the VATS on a Wednesday and was home by Sunday. He says he was surprised at the ease with which he recuperated and was doing yard work with no restrictions within a couple of weeks.
'Honestly, the worst pain I had was pulling the tape off the two holes," Ainsworth says. 'If I had the surgery the [traditional] way and found out about this, I'd be mad as hell. I feel very fortunate. Anyone needing surgery for lung cancer should look into this."