Lung cancer

In Australia, more than 13,250 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer each year and the majority of these people, almost 85%, will be diagnosed at a late stage. It is the most common cause of cancer death in our country.

What is lung cancer

Lung cancer is a malignant tumour in the tissue of one or both lungs. A tumour may be found in the bronchi or in the spongy lung tissue. Over time, this tumour starts to invade functional parts of the lung, affecting breathing, causing pain and symptoms related to the loss of normal lung function. These abnormal cells grow and divide uncontrollably and, if left untreated, eventually spread throughout the body. 

Symptoms of lung cancer can often be non-specific which can hinder early diagnosis and treatment. 

Symptoms of lung cancer

Symptoms of lung cancer can present in a similar manner to other conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), chronic heart failure and coronary heart disease. Any of the following symptoms lasting more than three weeks, or earlier in patients with known risk factors or with more than one sign, should be immediately investigated. 

New or changed cough

Chest and/or shoulder pain

Shortness of breath


Weight loss or loss of appetite

Persistent or recurrent chest infection

Other symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Fatigue
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis 
  • Abnormal chest signs 
  • Finger clubbing 
  • Cervical and/or supraclavicular 
  • Lymphadenopathy 
  • Features suggestive of lung cancer metastasis (e.g. brain, bone, liver or skin) 
  • Pleural effusion 
  • Thrombocytosis

Risk factors

Risk factors for lung cancer include: 

  • Lifestyle factors – current or former tobacco smoking 
  • Environmental or occupational factors – passive smoking, occupational exposures such as radon, asbestos, diesel exhaust, silica or air pollution 
  • Personal factors – increasing age, family history of lung cancer, chronic lung disease such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Pulmonary Fibrosis or personal history of cancer such as lung cancer, head and neck cancer or bladder cancer.

Cancer Australia’s Risk Factors for Lung Cancer provides an overview of the factors that increase the risk of developing lung cancer, and the level of risk associated with various factors. 


Australian guidelines state that a cough lasting for three weeks should prompt further investigations. Persistent symptoms, especially in people with risk factors, must be urgently investigated. 

For patients with few or no risk factors for lung cancer, the challenge is even greater for a GP to link a symptom like persistent cough to the possibility of lung cancer. The Cancer Australia Investigating symptoms of lung cancer: a guide for all health professionals, is a tool developed to assist all health professionals to investigate symptomatic people with suspected lung cancer and support their early and rapid referral into the diagnostic pathway. The guide is based on the best available evidence and expert consensus and has been endorsed by Lung Foundation Australia as well as number of other organisations and professional bodies. 

Key organisations for health professionals  

Lung Foundation Australia promotes evidence-informed approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. Health professionals are encouraged to access high quality information from reputable sources. The following organisations publish evidence-based guidelines, clinical resources and care pathways in lung cancerSome organisations also provide health professional education.