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Thoracic Surgeons - Everything You Need to Know


Amy Lynch for GBMC

July 16, 2019
Generally speaking, thoracic surgeons focus on the treatment of diseases within the chest cavity. The lungs, esophagus, ribs and chest wall all fall within the thoracic field. Patients usually see a thoracic surgeon after being referred by another specialist when nonsurgical treatment options have been exhausted.

Jennifer Sullivan, MD, a thoracic surgeon at GBMC HealthCare and the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute at GBMC, says most of the patients she sees either have cancer affecting the lungs or esophagus, or noncancerous conditions such as lung infections, lung disease, rib abnormalities, sternal fractures and hiatal hernias.

“It’s very rare that I would be the first stop,” she explains. “By the time patients come to me, they’re in need of surgery, most likely having already seen a gastroenterologist for a work up and endoscopy, or a pulmonologist who has tried to manage their lung condition through medication or other means.”

Do you need thoracic surgery?

To determine whether thoracic surgery is warranted or not, Dr. Sullivan carefully reviews all treatments, studies and imaging that have been performed on a patient related to the issue he or she is experiencing.

“The patient may have already had some studies done, but not everything that’s needed to determine a surgical course of action,” she describes. “Cancer patients are evaluated based on their treatment plan thus far to confirm whether surgery is the best option or if it would be more appropriate to pursue chemo or radiation first.”

A team approach to patient care

Thoracic surgeons work collaboratively with oncologists, pulmonologists, radiologists, pathologists, gastroenterologists and other specialists to create an individualized treatment plan for each patient that incorporates multidisciplinary input.

The patient’s condition dictates the extent of the thoracic surgery, whether it’s repairing of a hiatal hernia, plating a fractured rib (realigning with titanium plates) or removing tissue from the lung for a biopsy.

The state and future of thoracic surgery

Most contemporary thoracic procedures are now performed using minimally invasive processes through smaller incisions, leading to quicker recovery times and reduced need for pain management.

“We often do video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) here at GBMC,” Dr. Sullivan says. “We’re also going to be getting a new machine for robotic-assisted surgeries.”

Following thoracic surgeries, GBMC offers pulmonary and physical therapy rehabilitation to help patients heal.

Lifestyle changes to improve thoracic health

There are steps patients can take to support their own thoracic health, such as quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, managing chronic health conditions and seeing their primary-care provider for regular checkups.

Like any medical issue, especially when it comes to smoking and lung cancer, proactivity is encouraged.

“If you’re now or ever were a heavy smoker, you should get CT scans for lung cancer screening purposes,” Dr. Sullivan adds. “You can’t usually feel cancer growing in the lungs, and it isn’t often discovered until it’s advanced enough to cause symptoms.”
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