Returning to regular life at home after lung cancer surgery can be daunting.
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Hopefully, you’ll have close friends or family members around to help you adjust. But still, you’re not feeling your best, and leaving the hospital is leaving the comfort and security of having nurses and doctors around to check on you regularly.
If you’ve had a lobectomy, the most common form of lung cancer surgery, your body is getting used to functioning with less lung tissue. That’s a major operation, and healing will take time.
Just how much time will depend on the extent of the surgery, whether it’s performed minimally invasively, and your age and overall fitness. But you can expect to experience some pain, shortness of breath, dry cough and fatigue afterward.
To help your recovery along, be sure to take medication as instructed by your doctors and follow their guidelines for activity, driving and incision care. Thoracic surgeon Daniel Raymond, MD, emphasizes the following points for a successful transition from hospital to home.
Transition to non-narcotic pain killers as soon as possible. You’ll be sent home with a supply of narcotics to help manage your pain during the healing process, but Dr. Raymond encourages his patients to wean off of them quickly. “Often many of the struggles with the narcotics are related to the side effects, such as nausea and constipation, so transitioning to a non-narcotic regimen is very advantageous,” he says.
Understand that it’s normal to be emotional. If you find yourself reaching for the tissue box while watching a commercial on TV, or getting frustrated with the time it’s taking to recover, allow yourself some grace. “The emotional stress of having a cancer operation is often underestimated,” Dr. Raymond says. “That’s also often true for the family, too.” Plan to have strategies to cope, whether that’s keeping a journal or making an appointment to see a cancer psychologist.
Keep walking. Resting is important post-lobectomy, but so is standing up to move regularly. “We don’t want patients to get deconditioned or, even worse, get a blood clot in their leg,” Dr. Raymond explains. You may feel fatigued quickly when walking, but that’s OK. Walking to shortness of breath is not a bad thing. Increase your distance gradually, as you are able.
But follow activity restriction. The doctor might send you home with lifting restrictions. That’s not necessarily because lifting something can cause physical damage after surgery but because it would likely make the pain worse, Dr. Raymond says. You may also be instructed to not drive for a week or two after surgery because of the fatigue and decreased reaction time you’re likely to experience.
Make sure you’re getting enough calories. You may not have much of an appetite during the period after surgery, and that’s OK. But you’re likely to feel even more tired if you’re not eating enough, Dr. Raymond notes. Supplements can help you get some necessary nutrients if you don’t feel up to eating.
Be on alert for signs of an infection or complications. Call your doctor if you experience fever, progressive shortness of breath, progressive pain or palpitations. Atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heart rhythm, develops in about 15 percent of patients after lobectomy, Dr. Raymond explains. “As we’re getting better at discharging people early, more people may go into atrial fibrillation as an outpatient.”
It’s also important to keep your surgical wound clean and dry, and watch for swelling, redness or drainage that could indicate infection.