Patients who have very severe lung disease may need a lung transplant. The diseased lung is entirely removed and replaced with a healthy lung, usually donated by a person who died. Either one or both lungs can be transplanted.
Contrary to popular belief, lung transplant is rarely used to treat lung cancer. It is a more common treatment for patients with other advanced lung diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, sarcoidosis, pulmonary fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Lung transplant is a serious operation and is generally used as a last resort for patients who have only a short time to live without surgery.
During a transplant, an incision is made on the side of the chest (for a single lung) or in the middle (for both lungs). Patients may be hooked up to a heart-lung bypass machine, which will do the work of moving blood and oxygen through the body during the procedure. After the diseased lung is cut away from the main airway and blood vessels, the donor lung is stitched into place. Surgery may take as long as twelve hours, and a hospital stay of two to three weeks after surgery is not uncommon. For the first hours or day after surgery, patients use a ventilator, or a machine to help them breathe. Tubes will be inserted into the chest to help drain excess air and fluid. During recovery, physical therapy and breathing exercises are used to help the new lung work as well as possible.
Lung capacity is carefully monitored for several months after surgery. Patients who have had a transplant will also have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives. These drugs stop the body’s immune system from attacking the new lung. The main risks after a transplant are infection and rejection (when the immune system attacks the ‘foreign’ lung). A healthy lifestyle, including maintaining a diet high in vegetables and lean protein, not smoking, and getting enough exercise, is important to keeping the lungs functioning as well as possible. With proper care, many patients can live ten or even twenty years after a lung transplant.