Health Check

Lung cancer: risks, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Learn more about lung cancer

Written by Medibank
Lung cancer occurs most often in adults between the ages of 40 and 70 who have smoked cigarettes for at least 20 years.

Lung cancer is more common in men. The risk of being diagnosed before the age of 85 is 1 in 13 for men and 1 in 22 for women1. Lung cancer occurs most often in adults between the ages of 40 and 70 who have smoked cigarettes for at least 20 years.

What causes lung cancer?

The cause is not known in all cases. However, up to nine out of 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking. The risk of developing lung cancer is strongly linked to the age a person starts smoking, how long they smoke and the number of cigarettes they smoke.

Chronic exposure to second-hand smoke, such as living with someone who smokes, is thought to increase a non-smoker's risk of lung cancer by about 30 per cent 2.

A small percentage of non-smokers develop lung cancer, even though they have never smoked and are rarely exposed to smoky environments.

Symptoms of lung cancer

According to Cancer Council Australia, the main symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • a new cough or change in an ongoing cough
  • breathlessness
  • chest pain
  • repeated bouts of pneumonia or bronchitis
  • coughing or spitting up blood.

A person may also experience symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss, hoarse voice, wheezing, difficulty swallowing, and abdominal or joint pain. If you have any questions or concerns about any symptoms you may have, talk to your GP.

Diagnosing lung cancer

Lung cancer is diagnosed using a number of tests, which may include:

  • Chest X-rays
  • CT scan – a computed tomography (CT) scan
  • PET scan – a positron emission tomography scan
  • Lung function test (spirometry)– to measure how much air the lungs can hold and how quickly the lungs can be filled with air and then emptied
  • Sputum cytology – to check for abnormal cells
  • Biopsy – this involves taking a sample of tissue to confirm whether you have lung cancer.

Treatment for lung cancer

Stages of lung cancer

Lung cancer is divided into stages according to its spread. Staging the cancer helps your doctor recommend the best treatment for you. The most common staging system for lung cancer is the TNM system.

Treatment options

There are many treatment options available depending on the stage of the cancer, they may include:

  • Surgery –to remove part of the lung, or the entire lung.
  • Cancer therapies–this includes radiotherapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy , these options may be used to target and kill cancer cells and to stop them from spreading.

In some cases, patients may be able to take part in a clinical trial that is testing new or modified treatments.

Your doctor will recommend the best treatment option for you, but it’s important to talk to your doctor about any questions or concerns you have about your treatment.

Palliative care

In some cases of lung cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer. As well as slowing the spread of cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.

Do you have more questions?

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and have questions about your diagnoses or treatment plan, talk to your health care team and ask them to explain anything you don’t understand.

Medibank members with hospital cover can also call a nurse with any health question, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To speak to a Medibank Nurse call 1800 644 325.

1 Cancer Council Australia (

2 Better Health Channel (

Written by Medibank

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