Background: Since the incidence of the histological subtypes of lung cancer in industrialised countries has changed dramatically over the last two decades, we reviewed trends in the incidence and prognosis in North America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, according to period of diagnosis and birth cohort and summarized explanations for changes in mortality.
Methods: Review of the literature based on a computerised search (Medline database 1966-2000).
Results: Although the incidence of lung cancer has been decreasing since the 1970s/1980s among men in North America, Australia, New Zealand and north-western Europe, the age-adjusted rate continues to increase among women in these countries, and among both men and women in southern and eastern Europe. These trends followed changes in smoking behaviour. The proportion of adenocarcinoma has been increasing over time; the most likely explanation is the shift to low-tar filter cigarettes during the 1960s and 1970s. Despite improvement in both the diagnosis and treatment, the overall prognosis for patients with non-small-cell lung cancer hardly improved over time. In contrast, the introduction and improvement of chemotherapy since the 1970s gave rise to an improvement in - only short-term (<2 years) - survival for patients with small-cell lung cancer.
Conclusions: The epidemic of lung cancer is not over yet, especially in southern and eastern Europe. Except for short-term survival of small cell tumours, the prognosis for patients with lung cancer has not improved significantly.