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The study aimed to compare the reported oncological outcomes based on satisfactory lymph node dissection (LND) or lymph node sampling (LNS), systemic and loco-regional recurrence rate and long-term survival rate of patients with early-stage non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who underwent video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) lobectomy or thoracotomy lobectomy. A systematic review was conducted using PubMed, EMBASE and OVID-EBMR databases ranging from 1990 to 2011. The studies compared VATS and thoracotomy for patients with NSCLC, with results including LND or LNS where recurrence as well as survival rates were identified. Data were abstracted by two reviewers independently. Mean difference or risk ratio (RR) were pooled using RevMan 5.0 statistical software. 5389 cases were included, of which 2380 underwent VATS and 3009 underwent thoracotomy. There was no significant difference in the number of total LND or LNS procedures (MD: −0.63; 95% confidence intervals (95% CI): −1.47 to 0.21; P = 0.14) or mediastinal LND or LNS (MD: −0.51; 95% CI: −1.58 to 0.56; P = 0.35) between the two groups. Systemic (RR: 0.61; 95% CI: 0.48 to 0.78; P < 0.01) and loco-regional (RR: 0.66; 95% CI: 0.46 to 0.95; P = 0.03) recurrence rates were significantly lower in the VATS group. Moreover, a significantly higher survival rate (RR: 1.09; 95% CI: 1.03 to 1.15; P < 0.01) was also demonstrated by a Forest plot in the VATS group. These results suggest that VATS lobectomy might be an eligible alternative in place of thoracotomy in patients with early-stage NSCLC by reducing recurrence and improving survival rates.