BACKGROUND: Chromosome 17p allele losses and mutations of p53 gene are the most common genetic abnormalities in lung cancer. The purposes of this study were to evaluate the factors associated with p53 protein overexpression and to evaluate its prognostic value in patients with pathologic stage I non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). METHODS: This is a retrospective review for the patients who underwent surgical resection at Samsung Medical Center between Jan 2003 and Jun 2004. Immunohistochemical staining for p53 protein was performed on tumor tissues from patients with lung cancer. The p53 overexpression was evaluated in relation to age, sex, smoking history, histology and pathologic stage by univariate and multivariate analyses. The disease-free survival (DFS), disease-specific survival (DSS) and overall survival (OS) were analyzed using the Kaplan-Meier methods and the differences in DFS, DSS and OS were assessed by using the log-rank tests. RESULTS: A total of 125 patients were included in the analysis and a median frequency of p53 expression in tumor tissue was 10%. The p53 overexpression (> or =10%) was more common in squamous cell carcinoma (66%) than in adenocarcinoma (38%, p=0.002). The p53 overexpression was more common in pathologic stage IB (59%) than in IA (38%, p=0.002). Patients with p53-overexpressing tumor (27 years) smoked more years compared with those without it (20 years, p=0.032). Smoking history > or =25 pack-years was more common in patients with p53 overexpression (58%) than in those without it (38%, p=0.024). In the multivariate analysis, only histology was significantly associated with p53 overexpression. However, there were no significant differences of DFS, DSS and OS in relation to p53 status. CONCLUSION: The p53 overexpression was associated with histology, pathologic stage and smoking history in patients with pathologic stage I NSCLC. However, the p53 overexpression was not associated with patient's survival.