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Overview of the risk factors, pathology, and clinical manifestations of lung cancer

David E Midthun, MD
Section Editor
Rogerio C Lilenbaum, MD, FACP
Deputy Editor
Sadhna R Vora, MD


Worldwide, lung cancer occurred in approximately 1.8 million patients in 2012 and caused an estimated 1.6 million deaths [1]. In the United States, lung cancer occurs in about 225,000 patients and causes over 160,000 deaths annually [2].

Both the absolute and relative frequency of lung cancer has risen dramatically. Around 1953, lung cancer became the most common cause of cancer deaths in men, and in 1985, it became the leading cause of cancer deaths in women. Lung cancer deaths have begun to decline in both men and women, reflecting a decrease in smoking [3]. (See "Women and lung cancer".)

The term lung cancer, or bronchogenic carcinoma, refers to malignancies that originate in the airways or pulmonary parenchyma. Approximately 95 percent of all lung cancers are classified as either small cell lung cancer (SCLC) or non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). This distinction is essential for staging, treatment, and prognosis. Other cell types comprise about 5 percent of malignancies arising in the lung.

This discussion will present an overview of the risk factors, pathology, and clinical manifestations of NSCLC and SCLC. An overview of the initial evaluation, treatment, and prognosis of lung cancer is presented separately. (See "Overview of the initial evaluation, treatment and prognosis of lung cancer".)


A number of environmental and lifestyle factors have been associated with the subsequent development of lung cancer, of which cigarette smoking is the most important. The risk factors associated with the development of lung cancer are discussed in detail separately. (See "Cigarette smoking and other possible risk factors for lung cancer".)


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Literature review current through: Sep 2016. | This topic last updated: Feb 23, 2015.
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