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Cancer Treatment Centers of America


A thoracotomy is a surgical procedure performed to open the chest cavity. It is an incision made into the chest that allows surgeons to access the throat, lungs, heart and diaphragm.

A thoracotomy incision can be made:

  • Between the ribs on the front or side of the chest (limited anterior or lateral thoracotomy)
  • Down the front of the chest, through the breastbone (sternal splitting thoracotomy)
  • Across the side and around the back of the chest (posterolateral thoracotomy)

A thoracotomy may be part of a patient’s surgical treatment if he or she has been diagnosed with diseases, disorders or conditions such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Lung cancer or some other types of cancer
  • Permanently collapsed lung tissue (atelectasis)
  • Diseased or damaged lung tissue
  • Diseased or damaged blood vessels in the heart or lung
  • Blood in the lungs (hemothorax)
  • Infection in the chest cavity (empyema)
  • Diaphragm disorders
  • Esophageal or trachea (windpipe) conditions

Depending on the type of disease or disorder a patient has been diagnosed with, a surgeon will perform a thoracotomy followed by another surgical procedure, such as a:

  • Lobectomy (removal of one or more lobes of the lungs)
  • Esophagectomy (removal of all or part of the esophagus)
  • Wedge resection (removal of part of a lung lobe)
  • Pneumonectomy (removal of an entire lung)
  • Decortication (removal of an organ’s membrane or covering)
  • Open heart surgery
  • Heart or lung transplant
  • Tumor removal
  • Tissue biopsy

A thoracotomy and the surgical procedure that follows it can take several hours. Because a thoracotomy is a major, open surgery, patients need to stay in the hospital for about a week.

When possible, our surgeons perform video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery instead of a thoracotomy. The minimally invasive procedure allows us to diagnose and treat some of the same diseases and disorders as with a thoracotomy, but with potentially less post-operative pain, fewer complications and a shorter hospital stay.

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Thoracotomy is offered at our cancer hospitals in: Atlanta, Philadelphia, Tulsa, Phoenix and Chicago.