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Lung cancer: the high price for legacy of smoking

"Sadly an increasing number of Australians are paying the price for taking up smoking at a time when tobacco companies ruthlessly marketed their products as a socially acceptable habit. For smokers today the proven link to lung cancer makes it more important than ever to consider your future health and wellbeing by quitting smoking. If you're thinking about stopping smoking, talk to your doctor or call 13QUIT - getting help will significantly improve your chances of success." Dr Christine Bennett, Chair, Medical Advisory Panel, Bupa Australia


What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is cancer of some cells in part of the lung. It usually starts in the lining of an airway.

There are different types of lung cancer, classified by the type of cell affected. There are two main types-small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.

Small cell lung cancer makes up around 15 percent of lung cancers and is strongly linked with smoking. It tends to start in the middle of the lungs. Because it usually spreads early after it forms, surgery isn't often used for this type of cancer. Instead it's best treated with drugs (chemotherapy), often combined with radiotherapy.1,2

Non-small cell lung cancers affect the cells that line the main bronchi (the tubes into the lungs) and the smaller airways.2,3


What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms of lung cancer include:1,2,3

  • persistent cough
  • breathlessness
  • blood-streaked phlegm
  • chest pains
  • recurring pneumonia
  • recurring bronchitis.

Because most of these symptoms are common in smokers who become used to them, people tend to report little more than tiredness and weight loss to their doctor before they're diagnosed with lung cancer.


What is the impact of lung cancer?

Lung cancer is the most common cause of death from cancer in Australia.4

Up to 90 percent of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking.2 The incidence of lung cancer relates in part to the high number of people who smoked during a time when cigarettes were sold with little or no curbs on tobacco marketing. Even so, a high percentage of people still take up smoking or continue to smoke, despite the large amount of evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and various other long-term health conditions.


Am I at risk of getting lung cancer?

As with many other types of cancer, the cause of lung cancer is not always known. Cigarette smoking is the major cause of lung cancer with 10 percent of smokers developing the disease1. Why one smoker may develop lung cancer while another won't still isn't clear, but the younger someone starts smoking, the higher their risk of getting lung cancer.

Other risk factors include:5

  • gender. Female smokers seem to have a higher chance of getting lung cancer than males who've smoked the same amount.
  • exposure to second-hand smoke. Passive smoke causes lung cancer. If you smoke, you could be exposing people close to you to this risk. And if you're exposed to smokers, your own risk of lung cancer can increase too.
  • exposure to asbestos. Your risk of lung cancer is higher if you've been exposed to asbestos.
  • family history. If you have a parent, sibling or child with lung cancer, you may be at an increased risk also.
  • excessive alcohol use. You may increase your risk of lung cancer if you drink more than one standard drink a day (for women) or two standard drinks (for men).

How is lung cancer treated?

The lung cancer treatment you receive will be based on a number of things including your overall health, the type and stage of your cancer, and your own preferences.

You would typically have one or more treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or targeted drug therapy.1,2,3


Can I still get lung cancer if I've stopped smoking?

Yes. But quitting at any age can significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer. Your risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes you smoke each day and the number of years you've smoked. 2,5


What should I do if I want to quit smoking?

Once you've decided to quit, getting help will give you a much greater chance of success. For more information on what to do if you've decided to stop smoking.

For more support, call QUITline on 13 7848 (13 QUIT) or talk to your doctor or pharmacist. For our top tips on staying smoke-free.


Further information

Cancer Council Australia

The Australian Lung Foundation

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)

National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (US)



  1. Cancer Council Australia. Lung cancer - small cell. [online] Surry Hills, NSW: Cancer Council [last updated 20 Jun 2011, accessed 24 Jun 2011] Available from:
  2. Better Health Channel (Victoria Government). Lung Cancer [online] c2010 [Updated Nov 2010, accessed 21 Jun 2011]. Available from:
  3. Cancer Council Australia. Lung cancer - non small cell. [online] Surry Hills, NSW: Cancer Council [last updated 20 Jun 2011, accessed 24 Jun 2011] Available from:
  4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Cancer. [online] Canberra, ACT: AIHW 2008 [16 Dec 2010, accessed 24 Jun 2011] Available from:
  5. Mayo Clinic. Lung Cancer. [online] US: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 10 Nov 2009 [accessed 24 Jun 2011] Available from:

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

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