Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer-related death in the western world. Its incidence is highly correlated with cigarette smoking, and about 10% of long-term smokers will eventually be diagnosed with lung cancer, underscoring the need for strengthened anti-tobacco policies. Among the 10% of patients who develop lung cancer without a smoking history, the environmental or inherited causes of lung cancer are usually unclear. There is no validated screening method for lung cancer even in high-risk populations and the overall five-year survival has not changed significantly in the last 20 years. However, major progress has been made in the understanding of the disease and we are beginning to see this knowledge translated into the clinic. In this review, we will summarize the current state of knowledge regarding the cascade of events associated with lung cancer development. From subclinical DNA damage to overt invasive disease, the mechanisms leading to clinically and molecularly heterogeneous tumors are being unraveled. These lesions allow cells to escape the normal regulation of cell division, apoptosis and invasion. While all subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer have historically been treated the same, stage-for-stage, recent technological advances have allowed a better understanding of the molecular classification of the disease and provide hypotheses for molecular early detection and targeted therapeutic strategies.