Genomic instability is a driving force for tumorigenesis. p53 and telomerase play central roles in maintaining genomic integrity. The purpose of this study was to assess the associations among p53 protein overexpression, telomerase activity and genetic instability in lung cancer. We found that telomerase activity was detectable in 80% of 100 lung tumours, but only 7.7% of 91 paired adjacent normal tissues. p53 protein was overexpressed in 63% of the tumours but only 2% of the normal tissues. p53 was overexpressed in 56 of the 80 (70%) tumour tissues with telomerase activity but only seven of the 20 (35%) without telomerase activity. p53 protein overexpression carried a 6.7-fold (95% confidence interval, 1.7-27.7) increased risk for positive telomerase activity after adjustment by age, sex, ethnicity, smoking status and family history of lung cancer. The mean in vitro bleomycin-induced breaks per cell (a marker of cancer susceptibility) was significantly higher (0.92) for patients who overexpressed p53 in lung tumour tissue than that for patients with no detectable p53 expression in lung tumour tissue (0.65). Our data suggest that p53 protein overexpression may be common in individuals genetically susceptible to carcinogen exposure. p53 status may be related to telomerase expression.