A multicenter retrospective study was undertaken in northern Italy to assess clinical characteristics and pattern of care of elderly patients (greater than 70 years) with lung cancer seen in 1984, at 14 non-surgical institutions. Overall, 1 out of 5 patients with lung cancer was elderly. Eighty-four percent of the 264 elderly patients under study were males, and overall, their median age was 76 years. Squamous cell carcinoma was the most frequent histologic type (53%), and most of the patients (61%), after a rather intensive diagnostic workup, had loco-regional disease. Sixty-three percent of patients underwent radiotherapy, which was mostly classified as palliative. Chemotherapy was given to 13% of patients, mostly with small cell histology. Response to radiotherapy and chemotherapy was observed in about 50% of the patients; however, 3 out of 34 (10%) patients treated with chemotherapy died from toxicity. The median survival time from diagnosis was 9.9 months; survival time was not related, in this population of elderly patients, to age. Throughout the study, the quality of data recording during the patient's illness was often found to be suboptimal. In conclusion, elderly patients with lung cancer appear to be actively staged and treated outside a protocol context in the clinical practice of cooperating nonsurgical institutions in northern Italy. This stresses the importance of prospective studies aimed to evaluate the cost/effectiveness of the various procedures used and the impact of treatments used (or even of a policy of no treatment) on the survival and quality of life of these patients.