Lung Cancer

The five year survival rate for people diagnosed with lung cancer is less than 14% and more than 7,500 Australians die from the disease each year, making lung cancer the most common cause of cancer death in Australia.

More than 9,700 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed each year, making it the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in both Australian men and women. However, among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it’s the most common cancer in men and the second most common cancer in women.

Over the past 30 years, the incidence rate of lung cancer has been decreasing in men but increasing in women, although men are still almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease as women are (about 6,000 Australian men and 3,750 women are diagnosed with lung cancer annually).

Lung cancer incidence relates strongly to age, increasing sharply after the age of 50 years. In Australia, only about five per cent of lung cancers are diagnosed in people who are under 50 years of age.* 

*information from the Lung Foundation Australia website

The symptoms of lung cancer

Lung cancer is a difficult disease to diagnose and there is currently no screening process in Australia for the early detection of lung cancer. People may only discover it during a routine check-up or may have had signs and symptoms for months. Symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • persistent chest infection
  • fatigue / tiredness
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • new or unusual cough with more phlegm or blood
  • hoarseness / loss of voice without accompanying sore throat
  • facial / neck swelling
  • unexplained weight loss

The causes of lung cancer

Smoking tobacco is a major cause of lung cancer with studies showing smoking (or exposure to smoke) causes up to 90% of lung cancers in men and about 65% of lung cancers in women. Environmental factors including occupational exposure to industrial and chemical carcinogens, and indoor and outdoor air pollution may also increase the risk of lung cancer.

Associated risk factors include exposure to asbestos. Other factors are a family history of lung cancer and previous lung cancer disease. However, a subset of lung cancers is clearly found in individuals with no known exposure to these risk factors.

Options for lung cancer treatment

Lung cancer is made up of two main types, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC), depending on how the cells appear under a microscope. Each type behaves differently and is treated differently. Non-small cell lung cancers include at least three subtypes: adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and large cell carcinoma.  

Treatment depends on many things, including the type of lung cancer, where it is, how big it is, whether it has spread, and the general health of the patient.  Treatments include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and/or targeted drugs.

Garvan's research into lung cancer

For the past two decades, decisions regarding lung cancer treatment have been based largely on the histological appearance of the tumour as assessed by the hospital pathologist. Recent technological advances have made it possible to further subtype cancers according to their specific mutation profile. Targeted drug treatments are available for some of these molecular subtypes of cancer and it is important to determine how best to identify those patients.

The overall aim of Garvan research is to understand the gene changes that occur in lung tissue during cancer development.

More specifically we aim to:

  • develop relatively simple steps that can be applied to detect these genes (cancer biomarkers) in hospital laboratories
  • understand the biological significance of the gene defects in order to optimise the use of currently available treatments and to develop new treatments

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