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Pneumonectomy or Lung Removal: Can You Live With Only One Lung?

Medically reviewed by Janie-Vi Villamor Ismael-Gorospe, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Fiel Tugade · Updated May 15, 2022

    Pneumonectomy or Lung Removal: Can You Live With Only One Lung?

    A lung removal operation may sound shocking or scary to most people. Is it possible? Can you live with only one lung? While every operation has risks or may potentially be life-threatening, some operations such as a pneumonectomy, or lung removal, are necessary.

    What Is a Pneumonectomy?

    A pneumonectomy is a surgical procedure wherein a lung removal is performed by a set of doctors and surgeons. This is typically done as part of lung cancer treatment.

    To remove the injured lung, the surgeon creates an incision on the side of the body and separates the ribs by cutting some muscle. The pleural space (the sac that supported the lung) fills up with air, which is eventually replaced by fluid.

    Lung removal is generally performed by doctors as a treatment for particular lung cancer patients. These persons should have no indication of cancer spreading outside of the lungs. They also need to be strong enough to endure the procedure. 

    Pneumonectomy is a high-risk procedure when compared to other lung cancer treatments.

    Two Types of Pneumonectomy

    There are two different types of lung removal: simple pneumonectomy and extrapleural pneumonectomy. 

    Simple Pneumonectomy

    This lung removal is the most common type. It is done to remove one entire lung, and is otherwise known as a standard pneumonectomy.

    Extrapleural Pneumonectomy

    Extrapleural pneumonectomy is a surgical procedure wherein doctors take away the affected lung, as well as a portion of the pericardium, the diaphragm, and pleura. Doctors may opt for this kind of lung removal surgery to treat malignant mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the membrane that lines the chest cavity surrounding the pleura.

    Possible Reasons for Being a Lung Removal Candidate

    When cancer cells damage two or three lobes on the left or right side of the lungs, doctors may consider this treatment.

    The primary intention of pneumonectomy is to remove all tumors from the body. Doctors will not conduct this operation unless the chances of effectively removing all cancer cells are extremely high. 

    A person must have healthy lung tissue to be a candidate for lung removal. Having healthy lung tissue helps the person sustain breathing even with just one lung.  

    Aside from lung cancer, other diseases may require this procedure, such as: 

    • Traumatic lung injury
    • Malignant mesothelioma
    • Pulmonary tuberculosis
    • Bronchiectasis
    • Congenital lung disease
    • Bronchial blockage with a destroyed lung
    • Fungal infections of the lung
    • Disseminated thymomas
    • Pulmonary metastases (a tumor that has progressed from another part of the body to the lungs)

    Possible Risks of Lung Removal

    Every surgical procedure has its possible risks. For lung removal, the risks include the following:

    • Respiratory failure
    • Pneumonia
    • Pulmonary Embolism (blood clot in the lungs)
    • Shock
    • Infection at the incision area
    • Excessive bleeding and side infections
    • Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias)
    • Reduced blood flow to the heart
    • Broncopleural Fistula (an abnormal connection between the bronchus and pleural space)
    • Empyema (pleural abscess or fluid in the lungs)
    • Other complications and allergic reactions to anesthesia
    • Long-term shortness of breath (especially during activity)
    • Organ failure
    • Postpneumonectomy syndrome (remaining organs in the chest fill the space where the lung was removed)

    What Happens Next: Can You Live With Only One Lung?

    The short answer to this question is yes. You may still live with only one lung if the remaining lung is capable of accommodating your breathing.  

    There are two lungs in your body, and a network of tubes links both to your mouth. The lungs use these tubes to carry oxygen into the body and to eliminate carbon dioxide. All of your body’s functions require oxygen, while carbon dioxide is a waste product. If necessary, most people can get by with only one lung instead of two. When one lung has an injury, the other lung can often get enough oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide on its own.

    Lung Removal Post Surgery Recovery 

    Recovery after a pneumonectomy has two parts: immediate post-operative recovery (hospital stay) and long-term recovery (time spent at home). Full recovery can take weeks to months, depending on the method your doctor used to remove your lung. How well your body tolerates the treatment is also a factor.

    The intact lung gradually takes on additional work and expands its capacity after a pneumonectomy procedure. 

    Patients who have had a pneumonectomy can gently resume non-strengthening activities weeks after the surgery. Those with no postoperative problems may be able to return to work after eight weeks. However, the majority of pneumonectomy patients may experience shortness of breath (dyspnea) for up to six months.

    Key Takeaway

    It is normal for a person to feel scared and alarmed when a doctor brings up the possibility of lung removal surgery. You should know all the  risks, and complications before committing to this surgical procedure. 

    Learn more about Other Respiratory Issues here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Janie-Vi Villamor Ismael-Gorospe, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Fiel Tugade · Updated May 15, 2022

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