Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in Aotearoa New Zealand and can affect anyone.

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is cancer that starts in the lungs.

Like the rest of your body, the lungs are made of tiny ‘building blocks’ called cells.

Lung cancer begins with the abnormal growth of these cells into lumps or tumours.

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous


Cancer that begins in other parts of the body can sometimes spread to the lungs. This is secondary cancer in the lung.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the thin layers of tissue that protect and cushion the lungs but is not the same as lung cancer.

Lungs are a pair of organs on both sides of the chest. They fill most of the chest and are protected by the rib cage. They are spongy and roughly cone-shaped.

Lungs have sections called lobes. The left lung has two lobes, and the right lung has three.

The respiratory system also includes:

  • the nose
  • mouth
  • windpipe (trachea)
  • airways to each lung - known as the large airways (bronchi) and small airways (bronchioles)

The lungs are separated from the stomach and liver by the diaphragm - a wide, thin muscle that helps with breathing.

The lungs do not move on their own. The muscles between the ribs and the diaphragm make the chest expand and contract to pull and push air in and out of the lungs.

  • Ko te pā o te tahumaero ki ngā pūtau tēnei mea te matepukupuku. Tērā pea ka tipu hei pukupuku, ka hōrapa (metastasise) rānei ki wāhi kē o te tinana.
  • Ka puta ana te metastasis (matepukupuku tuarua), ka mau tonu te ingoa taketake o te matepukupuku. Hei tauira atu, kīia tonu ai, he matepukupuku pūkahukahu te matepukupuku pūkahukahu kua hōrapa ki ngā kōiwi.
  • Ka pā te matepukupuku pūkahukahu ki te tangata ahakoa ko wai. Ko te hunga momi hikareti te hunga kaha pā te mōrea. Kua kitea te matepukupuku pūkahukahu i roto i ngā tāngata kore momi hikareti hoki.
  • Ko ētahi atu āhuatanga mōrea, ko te whai pānga ki te papa kiripaka, te iraruke, me te parahanga, me te whai pānga ki te mahi hanganga rino, hanga konukōreko, hanga rinokita me te haukino waro.
  • He rerekē ngā tohumate mō tēnā, mō tēnā o ngā matepukupuku pūkahukahu, tae noa ki te puta o te whakapokenga maremare ki te poho, me tōna kore mutunga. Ka puta he mamae ki te poho, ki te tuarā whakarunga, ki ngā pakihiwi rānei, ka puta te poto o te hā, te ngae, ka whango, ka heke te taumaha/te hūhi (tino hiamoe) rānei. Tērā pea ka puta he toto i roto i te maremare hūare. Ara ētahi atu tāngata, kāre e paku pā he tohumate ki a rātou.

Types of lung cancer

There are two main types of lung cancer:

  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) makes up about 20 percent of lung cancers
  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common and makes up about 80 percent of all lung cancers

The type of lung cancer needs to be diagnosed to help decide on the best treatment for you. 

Lung cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of lung cancer may include:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away or a change in a cough you have had for a long time
  • Loss of voice or a change in voice (hoarseness)
  • Feeling breathless or wheezy without exercising
  • A chest infection that doesn’t improve with treatment or frequent chest infections
  • Chest or shoulder pain that does not go away
  • Coughing up blood
  • Weight loss for no reason
  • Feeling very tired

Often there are no signs of early-stage lung cancer. 

Having these symptoms does not mean you have lung cancer, but it is important to get any changes checked by your doctor.

Tips for talking to your doctor

  • make a list of what you are feeling and how often it happens, including as much detail as possible
  • think about your family/whānau history of cancer and tell your doctor
  • go back to your doctor if you don't feel better, even if tests show you don't have a problem - you can ask for a second opinion if you want one 
  • take a family/whānau member or friend with you to the appointment for support

What causes lung cancer?

Like many types of cancer, we don’t always know why people get lung cancer, but some things increase your risk.

Risk factors for lung cancer include:

  • smoking tobacco
  • breathing in other people’s smoke (passive or second-hand smoking)
  • getting older - lung cancer is more common in people over 65 years old
  • exposure to asbestos
  • air pollution, such as smog or car fumes
  • family/whānau history of lung cancer 
  • contact with certain chemicals and substances at work

People who do not smoke can also get lung cancer, but their risk is much lower.

Need someone to talk to?
8:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday
0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have nurses and counsellors to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: July 1, 2021