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Lung cancer


Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer.

Smoking cigarettes is the single biggest risk factor and is responsible for about 90% of all cases. If you smoke more than 25 cigarettes a day, you are 25 times more likely to get lung cancer than a non-smoker.

Cancer that begins in the lungs is called 'primary lung cancer'. There are two main types of primary lung cancer which are classified by the type of cells in which the cancer starts. They are:

  • non-small cell lung cancer (of which there are three different types: squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma)
  • small cell lung cancer.

Symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • coughing
  • unexplained weight loss
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain.

Lung cancer is usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.

Survival rates can vary depending on how far the cancer has spread (the stage of the cancer) at the time of the diagnosis. Early diagnosis can make a big difference.

Personal story: Lung cancer

Being diagnosed with lung cancer can be both emotionally and practically challenging. Listening to others who have experienced similar situations is often re-assuring and can be helpful for you, your loved ones or when preparing questions for your doctor or a specialist.

Watch this video about a patient's experience after being diagnosed with lung cancer..


Read the related video transcript >

More information about this video >

Sources: (Lung cancer, aged 40-50, interview LC06), NHS Choices, UK (Lung cancer, Causes of lung cancer)

Video Copyright: ©2013 University of Oxford. Used under licence from DIPEx. All rights reserved.

Just diagnosed

Once a number of tests have been completed, it should be possible to work out what stage your cancer is, what this means for your treatment and whether it is possible to completely cure the cancer.

Your treatment for lung cancer should be overseen by a group of specialists who will diagnose the stage of your cancer and plan the best treatment.

The type of treatment you will receive for lung cancer depends on several factors including:

  • the type of lung cancer you have (non-small cell or small cell)
  • the size and position of the cancer
  • how far advanced your cancer is (the stage)
  • your overall health.

Deciding what treatment is best for you can be difficult. Your specialist will make recommendations, but the final decision will be yours.

Cancer Council Australia can provide more information on lung cancer through their website, or by calling their helpline on 13 11 20.

Sources: Cancer Council Australia (homepage), NHS Choices, UK (Diagnosing lung cancer, Treating lung cancer)

Living with

People deal with serious problems in different ways. It's hard to predict how living with cancer will affect you. For example, due to the effects of your lung cancer or its treatment, you may have problems with breathing.

If you have had surgery, the physiotherapist will show you breathing exercises to help you breathe more easily and prevent complications. Although breathlessness may be a sign that the cancer is spreading, there may be other causes.

Patients who have had lung cancer are more likely to get chest infections. Anxiety may also cause breathlessness, and relaxation exercises may help with this.

About one-third of people having cancer treatment experience some pain, while others don’t have any. Pain isn't related to the severity of the cancer but varies from person to person. What causes cancer pain isn't well understood, but there are ways of treating it so that the pain can be controlled.

Having cancer can also lead to a range of emotions. These may include shock, anxiety, relief, sadness and depression.

Being open and honest about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help you may put others at ease. But don't feel shy about telling people that you need some time to yourself if that's what you need.

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Living with lung cancer)

Facts & figures

  • Lung cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer and is the fifth most common cancer in Australia.
  • About 9,200 people (65% males, 35% females) are diagnosed with lung cancer in Australia each year
  • Lung cancer ranked second for males and fourth for females when considering all causes of death.
  • A total of 4,715 males and 2,911 females died from lung cancer in 2007. This makes it the leading cause of cancer deaths for both sexes, accounting for 21% of all cancer deaths in males and 17% in females. 
  • Lung cancer is most commonly diagnosed in people 65 to 79 years old.
  • The age-standardised mortality rate from lung cancer for males decreased by 41% between 1982 and 2007, while the mortality rate for females increased by 56%.
  • The prognosis for those diagnosed with lung cancer is poor and has improved only a little over the previous 26 years. The five year relative survival was 11% for males and 15% for females in 2000–07, which compares with 8% for males and 10% for females in 1982–87.

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Lung cancer in Australia: an overview), Cancer Council NSW (Understanding Lung Cancer)

Last reviewed: 
February, 2013