Health conditions

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the fifth most common cancer in Australia with over 11,500 people diagnosed in 2014.

It is one of the deadliest cancers in Australia. The 5 year survival rate for people diagnosed with lung cancer is less than 14%.

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is a malignant tumour in the tissue of one or both of the lungs.

There are several types of lung cancer. The 2 most common types of lung cancer are:

  • non-small cell – makes up over 60% of all lung cancers.
  • small cell – makes up for about 12% of all lung cancers.

Signs and symptoms

Lung cancer signs and symptoms can be difficult to detect, and is often only discovered when it is more advanced.
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.

A person with lung cancer may also experience:

  • fatigue
  • weight loss
  • hoarseness or wheezing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • abdominal or joint pain.

Occasionally lung cancer will show no signs or symptoms and is detected through other routine tests such as an x-ray or CT scan.


If lung cancer is detected, several tests may be carried out to determine the severity of the cancer and if it has spread to any other parts of the body.

Tests for lung cancer include:

  • Chest x-ray – usually the first test carried out when diagnosing lung cancer. The test is painless and can detect tumours that are 1cm or greater in size.
  • Computerised Tomography (CT) scan – A CT scan takes detailed 3d images of inside the body and can also identify tumours not recognised by an x-ray.
  • Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan – a full body scan that is usually carried out if biopsy’s are inconclusive or not possible. A PET scan can also be used to stage the lung cancer or find cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Sputum cytology – an examination of phlegm or mucus from the lungs.
  • Fine-needle aspiration – a needle is used to obtain cells from the tumour for testing.
  • Bronchoscopy – using a flexible tube, this test allows doctors to look directly into the airways. A tissue sample is collected during this test.
  • Endobronchial Ultrasound (EBUS) – a type of broncoscopy that allows doctors to examine the airways and take tissue samples.
  • Mediastinoscopy – a less common procedure that allows doctors to examine lymph nodes at the centre of the chest.
  • Thoracoscopy or thoracotomy – this test is carried out if all other tests are inconclusive. It is performed while the patient is under general anaesthetic and involves taking a sample or completely removing the tumour. 

Treatment of lung cancer

Treatment for lung cancer varies depending on lung cancer type, stage and the patients breathing capacity and general health.

  • Non-small cell lung cancer – is usually treated with surgery if possible. Otherwise radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy is used.
  • Small cell lung cancer – is usually treated with chemotherapy.

Radiotherapy to the chest, brain or other sites (known as preventive or prophylactic radiotherapy) may also be recommended as this type of cancer can spread early and surgery is not often used.

More information

For more information on lung cancer diagnosis, treatment and management download the 
Cancer Council Western Australia information book (PDF 972KB) (external site).

Where to get help

  • See your doctor.
  • Visit a GP after hours.
  • Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.
  • Phone the Cancer Council on 13 11 20.


  • Lung cancer is the fifth most common cancer Australia with over 11,000 people diagnosed in 2012.
  • Lung cancer is a malignant tumour in the tissue of one or both of the lungs.
  • Lung cancer signs and symptoms can be difficult to detect, and is often discovered when it is more advanced.

This information provided by
Logo: Cancer Council Western Australia


Cancer Council WA

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.