Surgery is rarely part of the treatment for small cell lung cancer because the disease tends to spread quickly and responds well to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In addition, small cell lung cancers are often too difficult to remove surgically because they grow close to important structures in the lungs, such as the large arteries and veins.
In certain cases, however, particularly if the cancer is identified at an early stage, surgery to remove small cell tumors can be an option. Memorial Sloan-Kettering surgeons are skilled in removing small tumors, including those that are located near the exterior of the lung and those that have not spread beyond the lung.
Patients who are able to have surgery for small cell lung cancer typically receive adjuvant chemotherapy (chemotherapy given after surgery). This approach has been shown to improve cure rates when compared with surgery alone.
Minimally Invasive Surgery
Memorial Sloan-Kettering surgeons are highly experienced in using minimally invasive procedures, including video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) – also called thoracoscopy – and robotic surgery.
Although not appropriate for all patients, Memorial Sloan-Kettering surgeons increasingly use minimally invasive techniques to perform lung cancer operations without making large incisions or damaging the ribs. This results in faster recovery and makes it possible for patients who need further treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, to begin it more quickly.
With VATS, only a few small incisions are necessary. The doctor then inserts a small device consisting of a camera, a light, and other instruments, and is able to operate on the lung and chest without spreading or breaking the ribs.
Surgeons at Memorial Sloan-Kettering have documented the benefits of VATS in comparison to traditional open thoracotomy. These include:
- a reduction in the time that chest tube drainage is needed
- shorter hospitalization
- less pain
- fewer complications, particularly in older patients