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Living with one lung

Updated on February 25, 2014
Pope Francis
Pope Francis | Source

Recently, a new pope was chosen, Pope Francis. Going through his medical history, was that he only has one lung. This led me to look into how to live with one lung. In as much as living with one lung may sound frightening, a person can survive and lead a normal life as is evident with the pope who has led a relatively normal life devoid of health problems since his lung was removed in his teenage years due to infection, to the age he was elected at, 78. To most people, learning that a person has one lung may make them look at a person differently, but this need not be the case.

Causes of lung removal

There are many causes that may lead to a person to live with one lung. The most common cause is cancer. The main factor associated with over 90% of the lung cancers is cigarette smoking. Other at risk factors that contribute to a diseased lung include working in dusty conditions or areas with irritating fumes, long term exposure to a smoker’s cigarette smoke, a frequent productive cough, family history of lung disease of even shortness of breath in rigorous activity which may become worse even with lower levels of activity.

In the event a cancerous growth is noticed, the most common recommendation is the surgical removal of the section of the lung that is infected to avoid the further spread of the cancerous tissue. Depending on the spread shown of the cancerous tissue, a portion of a lobe of one lung, a lobe of the lung or the entire lung may be removed. Lung removal may also be advocated for when there is severe damage to the chest which damages the air passage (bronchus) or the blood vessels surrounding the lung in such a manner that the lung cannot be repaired.

Prior to the removal of the lung, numerous tests are required to ensure that the other lung can comfortably accommodate for the breathing needs of your body. Additional tests are also done to the heart, checking to ensure that it is strong enough to withstand the stress and strain that comes with surgery.

Life after

Recovery after surgery is normally a slow process, mainly as the remaining lung takes up the function of breathing for the entire body. After healing, the patient can slowly return to doing non strenuous activities, normally after about 8 weeks. Statistics from patients who live with one lung show that up to 60%of all patients will encounter shortness of breath when working on normal activities for up to 6 months after the operation.

In as much as life after the surgery is not normal, you can lead a pretty much normal life with one lung. Initially, it may feel rather difficult to get air, even after taking a deep breath. This is quite natural as the brain still works on the notion that two lungs are present. Anxiety results in most cases following the realization that you are unable to get enough air into the lungs as before. The standard time taken by the body to accommodate the new change may vary from 6 months to a year.

The main thing to be learnt from patients who live with one lung is that normal activities can continue but they require slowing down the pace at which they work on them. Exercise is also recommended as it stimulates breathing which helps increase the lung volume and even dormant alveoli cells in the lung. Breathing exercises such as Buteyko can also be tried to ensure the recommended air volume sufficient for the body gets into the body.

In cold weather, breathing might become difficult and such times might necessitate the use of a puffer to get in the required oxygen into the lungs. One lunged people also are at a risk of contracting pneumponia over those with two lungs. Congestion is also not uncommon in the bronchial area. Scar tissue may be the main cause of the congestion, forcing a person to constantly be clearing their throats.

In as much as living with one lung might require certain changes, a person can lead a relatively normal life. All that is needed is to ensure that a positive attitude is maintained and slight readjustments in the daily activities chosen.


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      Charles norris 23 months ago

      I had lung cancer four years ago, I really struggle in hot weather even now.I had my left lung removed. Urgent care said I had the flue. I was still had problems breathing . went to a specialist and I had stage three lung cancer. Urgent care did a chest exray but never sent it to to be read. I would not see another urgent care as long as I live. I have been on disability now for four years. Now social service says I can go back to work and are going to cancelled my benifits.

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      Bryce Bodin 3 years ago

      I had my left lung removed in 2005 at the age of 15. The pain was pretty bad for the first two weeks, but I ended up returning to school in just 4 weeks instead of 6. At first I would get out of breath just walking from my bedroom to the bathroom, but it will get bettter. Now I do Crossfit for my form of exercise and acutally I made my career out of it, training people now and coaching crossfit classes. I've built up to the point to where I am never the person putting up the slowest time and most of my clients have no idea I'm running around with just one lung, so never think where you are is the best you'll ever be at because I sure as hell have been progressing year to year for the last 10 years! I recommend doing some form of exercise and never be scared to push the intensity, it will only make you better.

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      Beatriz 3 years ago

      I had my lung removed 10 days ago. I'm short of breath when I walk and need to continue doing breathing exercises. I'm grateful cancer was removed and wont need chemo! Thanks for the info.

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      JPS SOUTH AFRICA 3 years ago

      Lost my right lung in April 2014, I am suffering, any advice from a one lung person would help.

      No counseling was done at all, I was told by the surgeon to go and enjoy my life.

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      GG 4 years ago

      I live with one lung and it took me two years to cover!

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      D.K.T 4 years ago

      I have one lung 50 years old, lost lung 6 years of age due to TB.

      At school very good at short distance sprint 100 & 200.

      long distance run not so good, but never came in last.