DNA from tumor samples of 54 patients with operable non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) was analyzed to determine whether proto-oncogene alterations could be correlated with the clinical behavior of lung cancer. Among seven proto-oncogenes tested, changes in the copy number of Ha-ras, c-myc and c-raf-1 were found in only seven tumors. Most of them were epidermoid carcinomas without lymph node involvement (N0). In spite of a localized disease with complete surgical resection, six of these patients relapsed within a mean disease-free interval (DFI) of only 6.5 months. There is a significant correlation between DNA alterations at proto-oncogene loci and clinical relapse within 12 months of surgical resection (P less than 0.025).