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Minimally Invasive Surgery for Lung Cancer

This article ran in the Winter 2019 Edition of the Virginia Hospital Center Magazine

When Sarah, a long-time smoker, learned that she had a small spot on her lung, she immediately thought of friends she’d known who had lung cancer surgery. “I saw what they went through after having major chest surgery— with the scars, pain and long recovery. I was afraid of that,” she recalls.  Fortunately for Sarah, her lung cancer was discovered at an early stage.

“Sarah had a suspicious nodule that we had been watching for a while, but then it started to grow and needed to be surgically removed. After a thorough work-up, including a PET scan, and breathing test, we determined that she was a good candidate for Video-Assisted Thoracic Surgery (VATS)—a minimally invasive surgical procedure,” says David Duhamel, MD, pulmonologist, Lung Cancer Program. The highly skilled, board-certified thoracic surgeons at Virginia Hospital Center have been successfully using the VATS approach for years to biopsy lung nodules, remove early-stage lung cancers and treat other lung diseases.

“For patients who meet the criteria, VATS offers fewer complications, less pain and increased mobility.” “After Dr. Duhamel explained about VATS, I was not panicked about my diagnosis or the surgery,” says Sarah. “I have always had every confidence in Dr. Duhamel.”

“With an experienced and highly specialized team of nurses and cardiothoracic anesthesiologists in the operating room assisting us, we try to use VATS for most types of pulmonary surgery,” says John W. Rhee, MD, FACS, Medical Director of Cardiac, Vascular & Thoracic Surgery at Virginia Hospital Center, who performed Sarah’s procedure.

“With VATS, we make small incisions to accommodate a high definition, fiber-optic camera and other instruments. We are able to see into the chest cavity and guide our instruments to the precise location of the suspicious nodule and remove it,” says Dr. Rhee.

Surgery typically lasts one to two hours; using enhanced recovery techniques in the dedicated cardiothoracic unit, many patients are ready for discharge in one or two days. They are out of bed the day of surgery and, by the time they go home, they are ambulatory and on a normal diet. “Our less invasive surgical techniques and intensive care from our nurses and therapists reduce recovery time by more than half.”

For Sarah, her VATS procedure was successful and the lung nodule was fully removed. “My story is amazing. I am thankful my cancer was caught so early. Today is a great day for me,” Sarah says. “I’m resuming Pilates this afternoon— something I have not been able to do for several months.”

If you are or have been a smoker, it’s important that you catch lung cancer as early as possible. Ask your doctor about having a low-dose CT scan starting at age 55. For more information, call the Lung Cancer Screening Program at Virginia Hospital Center at 703.558.8525.

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