The quality of diagnostic and therapeutic care was examined in a series of 380 consecutive newly diagnosed cases of primary lung cancer seen in 20 Italian general hospitals between January and June 1987. At diagnosis most patients (78%) had one or more symptoms related to the tumor, and in an additional 9% symptoms were related to the presence of distant metastases. The median diagnostic time lag between first symptoms and final diagnosis was 50 days with a significantly longer delay in patients first seen by their general practitioner compared with those who sought first care in hospital outpatient departments. The diagnostic process was satisfactorily carried out in fewer than two-thirds of the patients leading to complete ascertainment of disease stage and histology in 58% cases with significantly better performance in more specialized institutions. Analysis of the first-line treatment profile indicated a rather aggressive therapeutic attitude in the case of patients with non-small cell lung cancer - 28% of them had chemotherapy despite the lack of any proof of efficacy in controlled clinical trials - and a failure to identify among the patients with small cell disease those amenable to more aggressive treatment. The lack of progress in the treatment of lung cancer over the last decades seems to have resulted in widely varying practice patterns where a mixture of aggressive and laissez-faire attitudes does not take into account that in the absence of effective therapies a more conservative attitude would at least have some advantage in terms of quality of remaining life for many patients.