Over the past two decades, many surgical specialties have seen a dramatic shift from large, open operations with wide incisions towards more-minimal incisions and less-invasive procedures. Surgical techniques for lung cancer are no exception, and today, video-assisted thoracic surgical lobectomies are being performed with increasing frequency in large-volume thoracic practices. Despite these new surgical techniques, however, the most substantial innovations that have changed surgical outcomes occurred away from the operative theatre. In lung cancer, in particular, the last 20 years have witnessed the clinical debut of more sophisticated, more elegant and more accurate imaging modalities for improved screening, diagnostic and staging, such as the spiral CT scan, PET scan, PET/CT and the endobronchial ultrasound machine. This technology has been complimented by more targeted chemotherapeutic regimens, novel methods of administering more accurate and more concentrated doses of radiation therapy, and innovative local excisional methods, such as the Cyberknife and radiofrequency ablation. The result has been that surgical excision, although remaining the most effective local therapeutic modality in early-stage lung cancer, is no longer the 'lone ranger' treatment, but rather is part of a complex mosaic of multimodality therapy. As scientific advances continue to be translated into the clinic, this trend will inexorably continue with the advent of a molecular staging system using molecular markers and tumour profiling, which ultimately could enhance our ability to predict tumour chemosensitivity. In this brave new world, however, complete surgical resection of the lung cancer will continue to be critical.