Information and symptoms of lung cancer

Lung cancer is a malignant tumour in the tissue of one or both of the lungs. A primary cancer starts in the lungs, while a secondary or metastatic cancer starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the lungs.

On this page you will find information on:

Types of lung cancer

There are several types of lung cancer, which are classified according to the types of cells affected. Cancers are named for the way the cells appear when viewed under a microscope.

  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) – Makes up over 60% of lung cancers. They are classified as squamous cells carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.
  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) – Makes up about 25% of lung cancers. Types include small cell carcinoma and mixed small cell/large cell carcinoma.
  • Less common lung cancers – Other less common cancers can form in the thoracic (or chest) area. These are known as thoracic cancers and include thymomas, mediastinal tumours and chest wall tumours.
  • Mesothelioma – A rare type of cancer that affects the covering of the lung (the pleura). It is often caused by exposure to asbestos. It is very different to lung cancer.

How common is lung cancer?

About 2300 people (58% males, 42% females) are diagnosed with lung cancer in Queensland each year. It is the fifth most common cancer in Australia and is most commonly diagnosed in people aged 60 years and older.

Risk factors for lung cancer

While the causes of lung cancer are not fully understood, there are a number of risk factors associated with developing the disease. These factors include:

  • Age – lung cancer is most commonly diagnosed in people aged 60 years and older.
  • Family history – having family members who have been diagnosed with lung cancer increases your risk
  • Personal history – the risk of developing lung cancer is increased if you have been previously diagnosed with lung diseases such as lung fibrosis, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and pulmonary tuberculosis.
  • Tobacco smoking – About one in ten smokers develop lung cancer. A life-long smoker has between 10 and 20% risk of developing lung cancer, and are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers.
  • Passive smoking – Breathing in someone else’s tobacco smoke (passive or secondhand smoking) can cause lung cancer. Non-smokers who have been frequently exposed to secondhand smoke have a 20–30% higher risk of developing lung cancer than non-smokers who have not been exposed. People who have never smoked and have not been around secondhand smoke have a 0.5% risk of developing lung cancer.
  • Exposure to asbestos – Although the use of asbestos has been banned nationally since 2003, it may still be in some older buildings. People who are exposed to asbestos have a greater risk of developing cancer. Some people are exposed to asbestos at work or during home renovations. People who have been exposed to asbestos, and are or have been a smoker, are at even greater risk.
  • Exposure to other elements – Contact with the processing of steel, nickel, chrome and coal gas may also be a risk factor. Exposure to radiation and other air pollution, such as diesel fumes, also increases the risk of lung cancer.

Symptoms of lung cancer

The main symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • A new dry cough or change in a chronic cough.
  • Chest pain or breathlessness.
  • Repeated bouts of pneumonia or bronchitis.
  • Coughing or spitting up blood.

Lung cancer symptoms can be vague and the disease is often discovered when it is advanced (spread to other parts of the body). A person may have experienced symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss, hoarseness or wheezing, difficulty swallowing, or abdominal and joint pain.

Having any one of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have cancer. Some of these symptoms may be caused by other conditions or from the side effects of smoking. Talk to your doctor to have your symptoms checked.

Diagnosis

If you have symptoms that could be due to lung cancer, your GP can do initial tests. You will be referred to a specialist for further tests. Depending on your symptoms, you may have one or more of the following tests:

  • Chest X-ray – usually the first imaging test, it is painless and it can show tumours 1cm wide or larger
  • CT scan
  • PET Scan
  • Sputum cytology – examination of liquid phlegm or mucus from your lungs (sputum).
  • Fine-needle aspiration biopsy – is one of the ways of obtaining cells used for a diagnosis and is generally used where the tumour is in the outer parts of the lungs
  • Bronchoscopy – allows the doctor to look directly into your airways (bronchi) by inserting a flexible tube though the nose or mouth and down the windpipe (trachea).
  • Endobronchial ultrasound – bronchoscopy procedure that allows a doctor to examine the airways (bronchi) and take tissue samples through the airways and windpipe (trachea).
  • Mediastinoscopy – procedure that allows a surgeon to examine and sample lymph nodes at the centre of your chest.
  • Thoracoscopy or thoracotomy – is an operation performed under a general anaesthetic if other tests are unable to provide a diagnosis. Your surgeon will do this test to take a tissue sample (biopsy) or remove the tumour.

Some tests may be repeated during or after treatment to check how well the treatment is working. Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Treatment of lung cancer

Treatment for lung cancer will depend on the stage of the cancer, your breathing capacity and ongoing general health.

Non-small cell lung cancer is usually treated with surgery if possible, otherwise a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Small cell lung cancer is usually treated with chemotherapy. Radiation therapy to the chest, brain or other sites may also be recommended as this type of cancer can spread early and surgery is not often used.

For more information on the treatment of lung cancer please refer to the Understanding Lung Cancer booklet.

Prognosis

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You will need to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for any doctor to predict the exact course of the illness.

As in most types of cancer, the results of lung cancer treatment are best when the cancer is found and treated early. People operated on in the early stages of lung cancer have the best chance of cure.

Support

Whether you have been diagnosed with a lung cancer, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.

Find out more about:

You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.

For more information on lung cancer please refer to the Understanding Lung Cancer booklet. You can download the PDF or order a hard copy.

You can also refer to the Lung Cancer What to Expect guide to help you make sense of what should happen, and to help you with what questions to ask your health professionals to make sure you receive the best care at every step.