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Lung cancer - small cell

Cancer - lung - small cell; Small cell lung cancer; SCLC

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is a fast-growing type of lung cancer. It spreads much more quickly than non-small cell lung cancer.

There are two types of SCLC:

  • Small cell carcinoma (oat cell cancer)
  • Combined small cell carcinoma

Most SCLCs are of the oat cell type.

Causes

About 15% of all lung cancer cases are SCLC. Small cell lung cancer is slightly more common in men than women.

Almost all cases of SCLC are due to cigarette smoking. SCLC is very rare in people who have never smoked.

SCLC is the most aggressive form of lung cancer. It usually starts in the breathing tubes (bronchi) in the center of the chest. Although the cancer cells are small, they grow very quickly and create large tumors. These tumors often spread rapidly (metastasize) to other parts of the body, including the brain, liver, and bone.

Symptoms

Symptoms of SCLC include:

Other symptoms that may occur with this disease, especially in the late stages, include:

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask about your medical history. You will be asked whether you smoke, and if so, how much and for how long.

When listening to your chest with a stethoscope, the provider may hear fluid around the lungs or areas where the lung has partially collapsed. Each of these findings may suggest cancer.

SCLC has usually spread to other parts of your body by the time it is diagnosed.

Tests that may be performed include:

In most cases, a piece of tissue is removed from your lungs or other areas to be examined under a microscope. This is called a biopsy. There are several ways to do a biopsy:

Usually, if a biopsy shows cancer, more imaging tests are done to find out the stage of the cancer. Stage means how big the tumor is and how far it has spread. SCLC is classified as either:

  • Limited  -- Cancer is only in the chest and can be treated with radiation therapy.
  • Extensive -- Cancer has spread outside the area that can be covered by radiation.

Treatment

Because SCLC spreads quickly throughout the body, treatment will include cancer-killing drugs (chemotherapy), which are usually given through a vein (by IV).

Treatment with chemotherapy and radiation may be done for people with SCLC that has spread throughout the body (most cases). In this case, the treatment only helps relieve symptoms and prolongs life, but does not cure the disease.

Radiation therapy can be used with chemotherapy if surgery is not possible. Radiation therapy uses powerful x-rays or other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells.

Radiation may be used to:

  • Treat the cancer, along with chemotherapy, if surgery is not possible.
  • Help relieve symptoms caused by the cancer, such as breathing problems and swelling.
  • Help relieve cancer pain when the cancer has spread to the bones.

Often, SCLC may have already spread to the brain. This can occur even when there are no symptoms or other signs of cancer in the brain. As a result, some people with smaller cancers, or who had a good response in their first round of chemotherapy, may receive radiation therapy to the brain. This therapy is done to prevent spread of the cancer to the brain.

Surgery helps very few people with SCLC because the disease has often spread by the time it is diagnosed. Surgery may be done when there is only one tumor that has not spread. If surgery is done, chemotherapy or radiation therapy is still needed.

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well you do depends on how much the lung cancer has spread. SCLC is very deadly. Not many people with this type of cancer are still alive 5 years after diagnosis.

Treatment can often prolong life for 6 to 12 months, even when the cancer has spread.

In rare cases, if SCLC is diagnosed early, treatment may result in a long-term cure. 

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you have symptoms of lung cancer, particularly if you smoke.

Prevention

If you smoke, now is the time to quit. If you are having trouble quitting, talk with your provider. There are many methods to help you quit, from support groups to prescription medicines. Also try to avoid secondhand smoke.

If you smoke or used to smoke, talk with your provider about getting screened for lung cancer. To get screened, you need to have a CT scan of the chest.

References

Araujo LH, Horn L, Merritt RE, Shilo K, Xu-Welliver M, Carbone DP. Cancer of the lung: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 69.

National Cancer Institute website. Small cell lung cancer treatment (PDQ) - health professional version. www.cancer.gov/types/lung/hp/small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq. Updated May 1, 2019. Accessed August 5, 2019.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network website. NCCN clinical practice guidelines in oncology: small cell lung cancer. Version 2.2020. www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/sclc.pdf. Updated November 15, 2019. Accessed January 8, 2020.

Silvestri GA, Pastis NJ, Tanner NT, Jett JR. Clinical aspects of lung cancer. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 53.

  • Lung cancer

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    Lung cancer - Animation

    Cancer can affect just about any part of the body, from the colon to the pancreas. Some cancers grow quickly, while others grow more slowly and are easier to treat. But of all the different cancers out there, one of the deadliest is lung cancer. Let's talk today about lung cancer. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow uncontrollably and form tumors. In the case of lung cancer, the tumors start in the lungs. Sometimes cancer starts somewhere else in the body and then spreads to the lungs. In that case, it's called metastatic cancer to the lung. Metastatic means disease that has spread. There are two types of lung cancer. The most common, and slower-growing form is non-small cell lung cancer. The other, faster-growing form is called small cell lung cancer. The most common way to get lung cancer is to smoke cigarettes. The more cigarettes you smoke and the earlier you start smoking, the greater your risk is. Even being around someone who smokes and breathing in the secondhand smoke from their cigarettes increases your risk of getting lung cancer. Even though smoking makes you much more likely to get lung cancer, you don't have to smoke or be exposed to smoke to get the disease. Some people who have lung cancer never lit up a cigarette in their life. They have been exposed to cancer-causing substances like asbestos, diesel fumes, arsenic, radiation, or radon gas. Or, they may not have had any known lung cancer risks. The most common signs of lung cancer are a cough that won't go away, chest pain, shortness of breath, weight loss, and fatigue. But just because you have these symptoms it doesn't mean that you have don't have lung cancer. These can also be signs of other conditions, like asthma or a respiratory infection. If you do have these symptoms, see your doctor. A chest x-ray, MRI, or CT scan can view the inside of your lungs to look for signs of cancer or other diseases. What happens if you do have lung cancer? Doctors divide lung cancer into stages. The higher the stage, the more the cancer has spread. For example, a stage 1 cancer is small and hasn't spread outside of the lungs. A stage 4 cancer has spread to the other organs, such as the kidneys or brain. Depending upon the type and stage of your lung cancer, you may need surgery to remove part or all of your lung. Or, your doctor may recommend radiation or chemotherapy to kill cancer cells. If you have lung cancer, how well you do depends upon the stage of your disease and the type of lung cancer that you have. Early-stage cancers have the highest survival and cure rates. Late-stage cancers are harder to treat. Because lung cancer can be so deadly, prevention is key. The most important that thing you can do is to stop smoking, and avoid being around anyone who does smoke.

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    Bronchoscopy is a surgical technique for viewing the interior of the airways. Using sophisticated flexible fiber optic instruments, surgeons are able to explore the trachea, main stem bronchi, and some of the small bronchi. In children, this procedure may be used to remove foreign objects that have been inhaled. In adults, the procedure is most often used to take samples of (biopsy) suspicious lesions and for culturing specific areas in the lung.

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    Lungs - illustration

    The major features of the lungs include the bronchi, the bronchioles and the alveoli. The alveoli are the microscopic blood vessel-lined sacks in which oxygen and carbon dioxide gas are exchanged.

    Lungs

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    Lung cancer - lateral chest x-ray - illustration

    A lateral view of a chest x-ray in a patient with central cancer of the lung.

    Lung cancer - lateral chest x-ray

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    Lung cancer - frontal chest X-ray - illustration

    A chest x-ray in a patient with central cancer of the right lung. Notice the white mass in the middle portion of the right lung (seen on the left side of the picture).

    Lung cancer - frontal chest X-ray

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  • Adenocarcinoma - chest x-ray

    Adenocarcinoma - chest x-ray - illustration

    This chest x-ray shows adenocarcinoma of the lung. There is a rounded light spot in the right upper lung (left side of the picture) at the level of the second rib. The light spot has irregular and poorly defined borders and is not uniform in density. Diseases that may cause this type of x-ray result would be tuberculous or fungal granuloma, and malignant or benign tumors.

    Adenocarcinoma - chest x-ray

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  • Bronchial cancer - CT scan

    Bronchial cancer - CT scan - illustration

    This chest CT scan shows a cross-section of a person with bronchial cancer. The two dark areas are the lungs. The light areas within the lungs represent the cancer.

    Bronchial cancer - CT scan

    illustration

  • Bronchial cancer - chest X-ray

    Bronchial cancer - chest X-ray - illustration

    This is a chest x-ray of a person with bronchial cancer. This is a front view. The lungs are the two dark areas. The heart and other structures are white areas visible in the middle of the chest. The light areas that appear as subtle branches extending from the center into the lungs are cancerous.

    Bronchial cancer - chest X-ray

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  • Lung with squamous cell cancer - CT scan

    Lung with squamous cell cancer - CT scan - illustration

    This CT scan shows a cross section of the lungs of a person with lung cancer. The two dark areas in the middle of the screen are the lungs. The light areas in the right lung (on the left of the screen) represent the cancer.

    Lung with squamous cell cancer - CT scan

    illustration

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    Lung cancer - chemotherapy treatment - illustration

    Treatment for lung cancer depends on the type of cancer and the stage of the disease. Chemotherapy is a form of treatment for lung cancer which may cure, shrink or keep the cancer from spreading.

    Lung cancer - chemotherapy treatment

    illustration

  • Adenocarcinoma

    Adenocarcinoma - illustration

    Adenocarcinoma usually develops on the outer boundaries of the lungs and is more commonly found in women than in men.

    Adenocarcinoma

    illustration

  • Non-small cell carcinoma

    Non-small cell carcinoma - illustration

    Non-small cell carcinomas are the most common lung cancers.

    Non-small cell carcinoma

    illustration

  • Small cell carcinoma

    Small cell carcinoma - illustration

    Small cell carcinoma, also called oat cell carcinoma, can create its own hormones, which alter body chemistry.

    Small cell carcinoma

    illustration

  • Squamous cell carcinoma

    Squamous cell carcinoma - illustration

    Squamous cell carcinoma commonly starts in the bronchi and may not spread as rapidly as other lung cancers.

    Squamous cell carcinoma

    illustration

  • Secondhand smoke and lung cancer

    Secondhand smoke and lung cancer - illustration

    Secondhand smoke has been classified as a known cause of lung cancer in humans (Group A carcinogen).

    Secondhand smoke and lung cancer

    illustration

  • Normal lungs and alveoli

    Normal lungs and alveoli - illustration

    The lungs are located in the chest cavity and are responsible for respiration. The alveoli are small sir sacs where oxygen is exchanged in the lungs.

    Normal lungs and alveoli

    illustration

  • Respiratory system

    Respiratory system - illustration

    Air is breathed in through the nasal passageways, travels through the trachea and bronchi to the lungs.

    Respiratory system

    illustration

  • Smoking hazards

    Smoking hazards - illustration

    Smoking cigarettes puts a person at risk for emphysema, lung cancer and other health problems. Second-hand smoke (smoke from a nearby cigarette) may also contribute to these diseases, especially among children.

    Smoking hazards

    illustration

  • Bronchoscope

    Bronchoscope - illustration

    Lung or bronchial biopsy (tissue samples taken to diagnose or rule out disease) may be done with the use of a flexible bronchoscope, an instrument with a small light and camera which is inserted through the nose or mouth. When a suspicious area is seen, an instrument is channeled through the bronchoscope to take a sample for analysis.

    Bronchoscope

    illustration

  • Lung cancer

    Animation

  •  

    Lung cancer - Animation

    Cancer can affect just about any part of the body, from the colon to the pancreas. Some cancers grow quickly, while others grow more slowly and are easier to treat. But of all the different cancers out there, one of the deadliest is lung cancer. Let's talk today about lung cancer. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow uncontrollably and form tumors. In the case of lung cancer, the tumors start in the lungs. Sometimes cancer starts somewhere else in the body and then spreads to the lungs. In that case, it's called metastatic cancer to the lung. Metastatic means disease that has spread. There are two types of lung cancer. The most common, and slower-growing form is non-small cell lung cancer. The other, faster-growing form is called small cell lung cancer. The most common way to get lung cancer is to smoke cigarettes. The more cigarettes you smoke and the earlier you start smoking, the greater your risk is. Even being around someone who smokes and breathing in the secondhand smoke from their cigarettes increases your risk of getting lung cancer. Even though smoking makes you much more likely to get lung cancer, you don't have to smoke or be exposed to smoke to get the disease. Some people who have lung cancer never lit up a cigarette in their life. They have been exposed to cancer-causing substances like asbestos, diesel fumes, arsenic, radiation, or radon gas. Or, they may not have had any known lung cancer risks. The most common signs of lung cancer are a cough that won't go away, chest pain, shortness of breath, weight loss, and fatigue. But just because you have these symptoms it doesn't mean that you have don't have lung cancer. These can also be signs of other conditions, like asthma or a respiratory infection. If you do have these symptoms, see your doctor. A chest x-ray, MRI, or CT scan can view the inside of your lungs to look for signs of cancer or other diseases. What happens if you do have lung cancer? Doctors divide lung cancer into stages. The higher the stage, the more the cancer has spread. For example, a stage 1 cancer is small and hasn't spread outside of the lungs. A stage 4 cancer has spread to the other organs, such as the kidneys or brain. Depending upon the type and stage of your lung cancer, you may need surgery to remove part or all of your lung. Or, your doctor may recommend radiation or chemotherapy to kill cancer cells. If you have lung cancer, how well you do depends upon the stage of your disease and the type of lung cancer that you have. Early-stage cancers have the highest survival and cure rates. Late-stage cancers are harder to treat. Because lung cancer can be so deadly, prevention is key. The most important that thing you can do is to stop smoking, and avoid being around anyone who does smoke.

  • Bronchoscopy

    Bronchoscopy - illustration

    Bronchoscopy is a surgical technique for viewing the interior of the airways. Using sophisticated flexible fiber optic instruments, surgeons are able to explore the trachea, main stem bronchi, and some of the small bronchi. In children, this procedure may be used to remove foreign objects that have been inhaled. In adults, the procedure is most often used to take samples of (biopsy) suspicious lesions and for culturing specific areas in the lung.

    Bronchoscopy

    illustration

  • Lungs

    Lungs - illustration

    The major features of the lungs include the bronchi, the bronchioles and the alveoli. The alveoli are the microscopic blood vessel-lined sacks in which oxygen and carbon dioxide gas are exchanged.

    Lungs

    illustration

  • Lung cancer - lateral chest x-ray

    Lung cancer - lateral chest x-ray - illustration

    A lateral view of a chest x-ray in a patient with central cancer of the lung.

    Lung cancer - lateral chest x-ray

    illustration

  • Lung cancer - frontal chest X-ray

    Lung cancer - frontal chest X-ray - illustration

    A chest x-ray in a patient with central cancer of the right lung. Notice the white mass in the middle portion of the right lung (seen on the left side of the picture).

    Lung cancer - frontal chest X-ray

    illustration

  • Adenocarcinoma - chest x-ray

    Adenocarcinoma - chest x-ray - illustration

    This chest x-ray shows adenocarcinoma of the lung. There is a rounded light spot in the right upper lung (left side of the picture) at the level of the second rib. The light spot has irregular and poorly defined borders and is not uniform in density. Diseases that may cause this type of x-ray result would be tuberculous or fungal granuloma, and malignant or benign tumors.

    Adenocarcinoma - chest x-ray

    illustration

  • Bronchial cancer - CT scan

    Bronchial cancer - CT scan - illustration

    This chest CT scan shows a cross-section of a person with bronchial cancer. The two dark areas are the lungs. The light areas within the lungs represent the cancer.

    Bronchial cancer - CT scan

    illustration

  • Bronchial cancer - chest X-ray

    Bronchial cancer - chest X-ray - illustration

    This is a chest x-ray of a person with bronchial cancer. This is a front view. The lungs are the two dark areas. The heart and other structures are white areas visible in the middle of the chest. The light areas that appear as subtle branches extending from the center into the lungs are cancerous.

    Bronchial cancer - chest X-ray

    illustration

  • Lung with squamous cell cancer - CT scan

    Lung with squamous cell cancer - CT scan - illustration

    This CT scan shows a cross section of the lungs of a person with lung cancer. The two dark areas in the middle of the screen are the lungs. The light areas in the right lung (on the left of the screen) represent the cancer.

    Lung with squamous cell cancer - CT scan

    illustration

  • Lung cancer - chemotherapy treatment

    Lung cancer - chemotherapy treatment - illustration

    Treatment for lung cancer depends on the type of cancer and the stage of the disease. Chemotherapy is a form of treatment for lung cancer which may cure, shrink or keep the cancer from spreading.

    Lung cancer - chemotherapy treatment

    illustration

  • Adenocarcinoma

    Adenocarcinoma - illustration

    Adenocarcinoma usually develops on the outer boundaries of the lungs and is more commonly found in women than in men.

    Adenocarcinoma

    illustration

  • Non-small cell carcinoma

    Non-small cell carcinoma - illustration

    Non-small cell carcinomas are the most common lung cancers.

    Non-small cell carcinoma

    illustration

  • Small cell carcinoma

    Small cell carcinoma - illustration

    Small cell carcinoma, also called oat cell carcinoma, can create its own hormones, which alter body chemistry.

    Small cell carcinoma

    illustration

  • Squamous cell carcinoma

    Squamous cell carcinoma - illustration

    Squamous cell carcinoma commonly starts in the bronchi and may not spread as rapidly as other lung cancers.

    Squamous cell carcinoma

    illustration

  • Secondhand smoke and lung cancer

    Secondhand smoke and lung cancer - illustration

    Secondhand smoke has been classified as a known cause of lung cancer in humans (Group A carcinogen).

    Secondhand smoke and lung cancer

    illustration

  • Normal lungs and alveoli

    Normal lungs and alveoli - illustration

    The lungs are located in the chest cavity and are responsible for respiration. The alveoli are small sir sacs where oxygen is exchanged in the lungs.

    Normal lungs and alveoli

    illustration

  • Respiratory system

    Respiratory system - illustration

    Air is breathed in through the nasal passageways, travels through the trachea and bronchi to the lungs.

    Respiratory system

    illustration

  • Smoking hazards

    Smoking hazards - illustration

    Smoking cigarettes puts a person at risk for emphysema, lung cancer and other health problems. Second-hand smoke (smoke from a nearby cigarette) may also contribute to these diseases, especially among children.

    Smoking hazards

    illustration

  • Bronchoscope

    Bronchoscope - illustration

    Lung or bronchial biopsy (tissue samples taken to diagnose or rule out disease) may be done with the use of a flexible bronchoscope, an instrument with a small light and camera which is inserted through the nose or mouth. When a suspicious area is seen, an instrument is channeled through the bronchoscope to take a sample for analysis.

    Bronchoscope

    illustration

A Closer Look

 

Tests for Lung cancer - small cell

 
 

Review Date: 7/8/2019

Reviewed By: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 01/08/2020.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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