What is lung cancer?

Cancer is a disease of the cells that make up the organs and tissue of the body. Lung cancer develops when cells become abnormal and grow out of control.

Over time they form a clump, also known as a tumour. Lung cancer develops in your airways – the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. It can grow within the lung, and it can spread outside the lung.

Prevalence of lung cancer

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in the UK, accounting for 21 per cent of all cancer deaths (2016). In 2015, there were 46,388 new cases of lung cancer in the UK (source: Cancer Research UK, accessed Jan 2019).

Thanks to earlier diagnosis and better treatments over the last decade, lung cancer mortality rates have decreased by around a tenth (9 per cent) in the UK. Rates in males have decreased by around a fifth (19 per cent), and rates in females have increased by less than a twentieth (2 per cent).

Lung cancer risk assessment

Our experts can detect lung cancer in its earliest stages for a better chance of treatment success.

Explore our lung cancer risk assessment service to learn more.

Our consultant thoracic surgeon, Professor Eric Lim, explains the importance of early lung cancer diagnosis.

Lung cancer symptoms

There are usually no signs of the early stages of lung cancer, but as the disease progresses symptoms will develop and gradually get worse.

Some common symptoms include:

  • a persistent cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse
  • ongoing chest infections
  • a dull ache in the chest and/or a sharp pain when breathing in deeply
  • coughing up blood
  • breathlessness
  • weight loss
  • tiredness or lack of energy
  • chest or shoulder pain

Diagnosing lung cancer

There are a number of tests used to diagnose lung cancer. These include:

Chest x-ray

A chest x-ray is used to detect lung tumours, although further tests will be required to determine an exact diagnosis.

Computed tomography (CT) scan

CT scan is usually performed directly after a chest x-ray. A slightly radioactive dye is injected or administered orally to make the lungs show up more clearly during the scan.

PET-CT scan

PET-CT scan is typically performed when the cancer is in its early stages. This scan helps to determine where in the lungs the active cancer cells reside.

CT-guided lung biopsy

In cases where cancer is suspected, a biopsy may be performed. This involves a sample of your cells being taken and sent to a laboratory for further analysis. At our hospitals, we are able to diagnose lung cancer using Computed Tomography (CT).

A CT-guided lung biopsy is a procedure where a needle is used to collect samples from an area inside the lung that needs investigation. CT-guided lung biopsy uses CT images to help guide the needle to the area, to increase safety and improve the chances of obtaining cells that can be examined under a microscope. At our hospitals, a 93% success rate in making a diagnosis with this technique has been shown at audit.

The suitability of this procedure to diagnose lung cancer will depend on the type and location of the tumour and the way in which this appears on a CT scan.

Lung cancer treatment

The appropriate treatment of lung cancer depends on a number of factors, including:

  • the type and stage of lung cancer
  • where it is located in the lung
  • your general health.

Small cell lung cancer

This is predominantly treated by chemotherapy, although you may also have radiotherapy. Surgery is rare, since with this type of cancer, it has usually spread to the lymph glands, making most types of surgery ineffective.

Non small cell lung cancer

On the other hand, non small cell lung cancer can be treated with chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery – or a combination of these treatment options.


Discover our respiratory medicine experts

Meet our team of leading lung cancer and respiratory medicine specialists. From respiratory health to advanced interventions, our experts are dedicated to providing personalised care tailored to your lung health needs.