A hundred years ago, lung cancer was a reportable disease, and it is now the commonest cause of death from cancer in both men and women in the developed world, and before long, will reach that level in the developing world as well. The disease has no particular symptoms or signs for its detection at an early stage. Most patients therefore present with advanced stage IIIB or IV disease. Screening tests began in the 1950s with annual chest x-ray films and sputum cytology but they resulted in no improvement in overall mortality compared with control subjects. The same question is now being asked of spiral low-dose computed tomographic scanning. There have been big refinements in the staging classification of lung cancer and advances in stage identification using minimally invasive technology. Postsurgical mortality has declined from the early days of the 1950s but 5-year cure rates have only barely improved. The addition of chemotherapy to radical radiotherapy, together with novel radiotherapy techniques, is gradually improving the outcome for locally advanced, inoperable non-small cell lung cancer. Chemotherapy offers modest survival improvement for patients with non-small cell lung cancer, the modern agents being better tolerated resulting in an improved quality of life. The management of small cell lung cancer, which appeared so promising at the beginning of the 1970s, has hit a plateau with very little advance in outcome over the last 15 years. The most important and cost-effective management for lung cancer is smoking cessation, but for those with the disease, novel agents and treatment approaches are urgently needed.