Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the 5th most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia

The earlier lung cancer is diagnosed the greater the chance of success of treatment, however, the majority of cases are diagnosed at advanced stages – stage III or IV. Lung cancer can be difficult to diagnose early because some symptoms overlap with those of other conditions and/or may not be considered ‘high-risk’ if occurring in isolation. For patients with few or no risk factors for lung cancer, early diagnosis is made even more challenging as their healthcare professional may not immediately suspect lung cancer as a potential cause of their symptoms. It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of lung cancer as delays in investigations can lead to diagnosis of more advance staged cancer.

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Health professionals working in primary care are integral to early detection of lung cancer, as the majority of patients first present to primary care settings. In the three months leading up to diagnosis, patients often see a GP ≥ 4 times before a diagnosis is made.1 For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are considered high risk, Aboriginal Health Workers provide a critical link  in providing information, support and co-ordination to improve health outcomes.

Tests performed to investigate symptoms

  • Medical history and physical examination 
  • Imaging tests, such as chest X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scan, bone scan or ultrasound 
  • Laboratory tests on blood or tissue 
  • Lung biopsy 
  • Sputum cytology 
  • Bronchoscopy 
  • Video-assisted thoracoscopy 
  • Thoracentesis
  • Mediastinoscopy and mediastinotomy

Specialist referral

It is recommended that a person with suspected lung cancer be referred to a specialist who is an active member of a cancer care Multidisciplinary Team (MDT)Health professionals, including general practitioners, are encouraged to use established clinical databases and pathways to support timely and appropriate referral. Lung Foundation Australia maintains a living directory of lung cancer MDTs to inform patients and health professionals of the location throughout Australia. The directory can be searched on a state basis, and a map function is also available to assist with referral decisions

Lung Cancer Support Nurse

Lung Foundation Australia’s Lung Cancer Support Nurse free telephone service connects patients and families affected by lung cancer with a highly qualified oncology nurse who provides expert information and support.  Referral to the Lung Cancer Support nurse extends the clinical care that you provide to your patients, and their families and carers. The service does not duplicate your clinical care but expands support to help patients better self-manage disease and treatment symptoms and side effects.


  1. Cancer Australia. (2020, May). Investigating symptoms of Lung Cancer. Retrieved from Cancer Australia: https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/investigating-symptoms-lung-cancer-guide-all-health-professionals/pdf/investigating_symptoms_of_lung_cancer_-_the_guide.pdf