Public Health Agency of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Share this page

Lung Cancer

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer starts in the cells of your lungs, and develops when a group of abnormal cells begins to multiply forming lumps called tumours. Cancer that starts in the lung cancer can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

It is estimated that 28,400 Canadians will develop lung cancer in 2016 and 20,800 will die from it. Incidence of lung cancer remains higher in males (79 per 100,000) than females (66 per 100,000). Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both males (26.1% of cancer deaths) and females (26.4% of cancer deaths).

There are two types of lung cancer:

  • small cell lung cancer (SCLC) that grows quickly and often spreads to other parts of the body - this type of cancer is linked to cigarette use and not often seen in those who do not smoke.
  • non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the more common type of lung cancer that grows more slowly.

How do I know if I have lung cancer?

Often the symptoms of lung cancer do not appear until the disease is in an advanced stage. As the cancer develops, you may experience:

  • problems breathing (such as shortness of breath, wheezing, a hoarse voice, and a cough that gets worse or won’t go away)
  • chest pain, especially when you breathe deeply or cough
  • coughing up blood (called hemoptysis )
  • chest infections (such as pneumonia) that are frequent and won’t go away
  • fatigue (feeling very tired all the time)
  • unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite (feeling that you don’t want to eat).

Many of these symptoms can be explained by reasons other than having cancer. You should see your doctor if any of these symptoms are prevalent and do not go away.

Routine screening for lung cancer is not recommended unless you have:

  • any of the symptoms listed above
  • a family history of cancer
  • other risk factors (see below)

If you have some of the symptoms listed above, your doctor will want to do a physical examination.  The doctor may then want you to have:

  • a chest x-ray
  • an analysis of phlegm (the mucus you are coughing up, called sputum)
  • a biopsy (taking a small sample of your lung with a thin needle so it can be examined under a microscope)
  • a bronchoscopy (a thin tube through your mouth into the lung to look for tumours)
  • a CT scan (a series of X-rays taken along your body)

What is my risk of getting it?

The main cause of lung cancer is smoking – the more you smoke and the longer you smoke, the greater your chance of developing lung cancer.  Also, being around people who smoke (and being exposed to their second-hand smoke ) increases your chances of developing lung cancer.

Other risk factors for developing lung cancer include:

  • having had lung cancer before or having a family history of lung cancer
  • air pollution
  • being exposed to petroleum (crude oil) and similar products
  • when disturbing or removing building materials containing asbestos , during the renovation or repair of a home or building or in occupational settings if proper safety procedures are not followed and fibres can be inhaled.
  • being exposed to radon gas
  • being exposed to other chemicals.

For more information on other types of cancers