Lung cancer, small cell


Small cell lung cancer is a disease in which the cells
of the lung tissues grow uncontrollably and form tumors.


Lung cancer is divided into two main types: small cell and non-small cell. Small cell lung cancer is the least common of the two, accounting for only about 20% of all lung cancers. In the past, the disease was called oat cell cancer because, when viewed under a microscope, the cancer cells resemble oats. This type of lung cancer grows quickly and is more likely to spread to other organs in the body.

The lungs are located along with the heart in the chest cavity. The lungs are not simply hollow balloons, but have a very organized structure consisting of hollow tubes, blood vessels, and elastic tissue. The hollow tubes, called bronchi, are multi-branched, becoming smaller and more numerous at each branching. They end in tiny, blind sacs made of elastic tissue called alveoli. These sacs are where the oxygen a person breathes in is taken up into the blood, and where carbon dioxide moves out of the blood to be breathed out.

Normal, healthy lungs are continually secreting mucus that not only keeps the lungs moist, but also protects the lungs by trapping foreign particles like dust and dirt in breathed air. The inside of the lungs is covered with small, hair-like structures called cilia. The cilia move in such a way that mucus is swept up out of the lungs and into the throat.

Small cell lung tumors usually start to develop in the central bronchi. They grow quickly and prevent the lungs from functioning at their full capacity. Tumors may block the movement of air through the bronchi in the lungs. As a result, less oxygen gets into the blood and patients feel short of breath. Tumors may also block the normal movement of mucus into the throat. As a result, mucus builds up in the lungs and infection may develop behind the tumor.


Lung cancer is a growing global epidemic. Worldwide, lung cancer is the second most common cancer among both men and women and is the leading cause of cancer death in both sexes. The worldwide mortality rate for patients with lung cancer is 86%. Of the 160,000 deaths from lung cancer that occur annually in the United States, about 40,000 are caused by small cell lung cancer.

Although there are differences in mortality rates between ethnic groups, this is mainly due to differences in smoking habits.

Causes and symptoms

Tobacco smoking accounts for nearly 90% of all lung cancers. The risk of developing lung cancer is increased for smokers who start at a young age, and for those who have smoked for a long time. The risk also increases as more cigarettes are smoked, and when cigarettes with higher tar content are smoked. Smoking marijuana cigarettes is also a risk factor for lung cancer. These cigarettes have a higher tar content than tobacco cigarettes.

Certain hazardous materials that people may be exposed to in their jobs have been shown to cause lung cancer. These include asbestos, coal products, and radioactive substances. Air pollution may also be a contributing factor. Exposure to radon, a colorless, odorless gas that sometimes accumulates in the basement of homes, may cause lung cancer in some patients. In addition, patients whose lungs are scarred from other lung conditions may have an increased risk of developing lung cancer.

Although the exact cause of lung cancer is not known, people with a family history of lung cancer appear to have a slightly higher risk of contracting the disease.

Small cell lung cancer is an aggressive disease that spreads quickly. Symptoms depend on the tumor’s location within the lung, and on whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. More than 80% of small cell lung cancer patients have symptoms for only three months or less, and few cases are detected early. The following symptoms are the most commonly reported by small cell lung cancer patients at the time of their diagnosis:

  • a cough that does not go away
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath and wheezing
  • persistent hoarseness
  • fatigue and loss of appetite (anorexia)

Although some patients may experience bloody spit or phlegm, this symptom is more commonly seen in patients with other types of lung cancer.

Small cell tumors often press against a large blood vessel near the lungs called the superior vena cava (SVC), causing a condition known as SCV syndrome. This condition may cause patients to retain water, cough, and have shortness of breath. Because small cell lung cancer often spreads quickly to the bones and central nervous system, patients may also have bone pain, headaches, and seizures.


If lung cancer is suspected, the doctor will take a detailed medical history that checks both symptoms and risk factors. During a complete physical examination, the doctor will examine the patient’s throat to rule out other possible causes of hoarseness or coughing, and listen to the patient’s breathing and the sounds made when the patient’s chest and upper back are tapped. A chest x ray may be ordered to check for masses in the lungs. Special imaging techniques, such as computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may provide more precise information about the size, shape, and location of any tumors.
Sputum analysis involves microscopic examination of the cells that are either coughed up from the lungs, or are collected through a special instrument called a bronchoscope.
The sputum test does not, however, provide any information about the location of the tumor and must be followed by other tests.

Lung biopsy is the most definitive diagnostic tool for cancer. It can be performed in several different ways.
The doctor can perform a bronchoscopy, which involves the insertion of a slender, lighted tube, called a bronchoscope, down the patient’s throat and into the lungs. In addition to viewing the passageways of the lungs, the doctor can use the bronchoscope to obtain samples of the lung tissue. In another procedure known as a needle biopsy, the location of the tumor is first identified using a CT scan or MRI. The doctor then inserts a needle through the chest wall and collects a sample of tissue from the tumor. In the third procedure, known as surgical biopsy, the chest wall is opened up and a part of the tumor, or all of it, is removed for examination.

Treatment team

Small cell lung cancer patients are usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Patients will usually see an oncologist (cancer specialist) who will supervise their chemotherapy, while a radiation oncologist will supervise their radiotherapy. Oncology nurses that specialize in caring for cancer patients usually administer chemotherapy. The few patients who undergo surgery will see a thoracic surgeon who specializes in operating in the chest cavity.

Clinical staging, treatments, and prognosis

Staging procedures are important in lung cancer because they tell doctors whether patients have disease only in their lungs, or whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. To establish the cancer stage, doctors have to perform various tests. These may include bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, CT scans of the chest and abdomen, MRI scans of the brain, and radionuclide bone scans. All of these tests determine the extent to which the cancer has spread. Once the stage is determined, doctors can decide on a course of treatment, and can have a better idea of the patient’s prognosis.

Unlike other types of lung cancer, the staging of small cell lung cancer is relatively simple. This is because approximately 70% of patients already have metastatic disease when they are diagnosed, and small differences in the amount of tumor found in the lungs do not change the prognosis. Small cell lung cancer is usually divided into three stages:

  • Limited stage: The cancer is found only in one lung and in lymph nodes close to the lung.
  • Extensive stage: The cancer has spread beyond the lungs to other parts of the body.
  • Recurrent stage: The cancer has returned following treatment.

Without treatment, small cell lung cancer has the most aggressive clinical course of any type of pulmonary tumor, with median survival from diagnosis of only 2–4 months. Compared with other cell types of lung cancer, small cell lung cancer has a greater tendency to be widely disseminated by the time of diagnosis, but is much more responsive to chemotherapy and irradiation.

Treatment of small cell lung cancer depends on whether the patient has limited, extensive, or recurrent disease. Treatment usually involves radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Surgery is rarely used for this type of lung cancer because the tumor is usually too advanced.

Patients with limited-stage disease are usually treated with chemotherapy. Combinations of two or more drugs have a better effect than treatment with a single drug. Up to 90% of patients with this stage of disease will respond to chemotherapy. The chemotherapy most commonly prescribed is a combination of the drugs etoposide (Vepesid) and cisplatin (Platinol). Combining chemotherapy with chest radiotherapy and/or occasionally surgery has also prolonged survival for limited-stage patients.

In addition to chest radiotherapy, some patients are also treated with radiation therapy to the brain, even if no cancer is found there. This treatment, called prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI), is given to prevent tumors from forming in the brain. The combination of etoposide and cisplatin chemotherapy with chest radiation therapy and PCI has increased the two-year survival of limitedstage small cell lung cancer patients to almost 50%.
Combinations of different chemotherapy agents are also used for treating extensive-stage small cell lung cancer.

However, compared with limited-stage patients, the percentage of extensive-stage patients who respond to therapy is lower. Commonly used drug combinations include cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), doxorubicin (Adriamycin), and vincristine (Oncovin), or etoposide and cisplatin. The addition of radiation therapy to chemotherapy does not improve survival in these patients. However, radiation therapy is used for the palliative (pain relief) treatment of symptoms of metastatic lung cancer, particularly brain and bone tumors.


  • What type of lung cancer do I have?
  • Has the cancer spread?
  • What are the treatment options?
  • Should I consider a clinical trial?

Patients who have recurrent small cell lung cancer often become resistant to chemotherapy. These patients are treated with palliative radiotherapy. Their doctor may also recommend that they take part in a clinical trial of a new therapy. Patients whose relapse occurs more than six months after their initial treatment, however, may still respond to traditional chemotherapy.


Small cell lung cancer is a very aggressive disease.
Without treatment, limited-stage patients will survive for three to six months, while extensive-stage patients will survive six to 12 weeks. However, small cell lung cancer is much more responsive to chemotherapy and radiation therapy than other types of lung cancer. Among patients treated with chemotherapy, 70–90% have a major response to treatment.

Survival in patients responding to therapy is four to five times longer than in patients without treatment. In addition, two years after the start of therapy, about 10% of patients remain free of disease. In general, women tend to have a better prognosis than men. Patients whose disease has spread to the central nervous system or liver have a much worse prognosis. Although the overall survival at five years is 5% to 10%, survival is higher in patients with limited stage disease. About 70% of patients who are disease free after two years do not relapse. After five to 10 disease-free years, relapses are rare.

Alternative and complementary therapies

Many cancer patients have tried using shark cartilage to treat their disease. Shark cartilage is thought to interfere with the tumor’s blood supply. A clinical trial using this treatment in lung cancer patients is ongoing.

Information on this and other alternative treatments is available on the Internet from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Bronchi -Hollow tubes that carry air into the lungs.
PCI -A type of radiotherapy that is used to prevent tumors from growing in the brain.
Radionuclide bone scan -A test that tells if cancer has spread to the bones.
Superior vena cava (SVC) syndrome -A condition seen in lung cancer patients where the tumor presses against a large blood vessel and causes various symptoms.

Patients who decide to try complementary and alternative therapies should tell their doctor. Some of these therapies may interfere with conventional treatment.

Coping with cancer treatment

The side effects associated with treatment of small cell lung cancer can be severe. Patients should ask their doctor about medications to treat nausea and vomiting and other side effects. It is particularly important to eat a nutritious diet and to drink plenty of fluids. In addition, most patients report feeling very tired and should get plenty of rest.

Clinical trials

Most of the improvements in the survival of patients with small cell lung cancer are the result of clinical trials.

Ongoing trials are investigating new chemotherapy and radiotherapy regimens. In addition, entirely new types of therapy, such as gene therapy and biological therapy, are now being tested. Patients with a lung cancer diagnosis should ask their doctor about participating in a clinical trial.

Information on open clinical trials is available on the Internet from the National Cancer Institute at


The best way to prevent lung cancer is either not start smoking, or quit smoking. Secondhand smoke from other people’s tobacco should also be avoided. Appropriate preinterfere precautions should be taken when working with substances that can cause cancer (carcinogens). Testing houses for the presence of radon gas, and removing asbestos from buildings have also been suggested as preventive strategies.

Special concerns

Small cell lung cancer can cause several hormonal disorders. About 40% of patients begin to secrete an antidiuretic hormone at the wrong time. This hormone causes the body to retain water, which may result in the patient experiencing confusion, seizures, or coma. Less common are the development of Cushing’s syndrome and the Eaton-Lambert syndrome. Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include obesity, severe fatigue, high blood pressure, backache, high blood sugar, easy bruising, and bluish-red stretch marks on the skin. Eaton-Lambert syndrome is a neuromuscular disorder that causes muscle weakness, fatigue, and a tingling sensation on the skin. All of these hormonal disorders usually diminish after the lung tumor is successfully treated.


Pass, Harvey I. et al. Lung Cancer Principles and Practice.
Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2000.

Adjei, Alex A. et al. “Current Guidelines for the Management of Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 74 (August 1999): 809-16.

Sandler, Alan. “Extensive Small Cell Lung Cancer: A Treatment Overview.” Oncology 14, no. 7, supplement 5 (July 2000): 49-55.

Tamura, Tomohide. “New State of the Art in Small Cell Lung Cancer.” Oncology 15, no. 1, supplement 1 (January 2001): 8-10.

Alliance for Lung Cancer Advocacy, Support, and Education.
P.O. Box 849, Vancouver,WA 98666. (800) 298-2436.

American Lung Association. (800) 586-4872.

National Cancer Institute (National Institutes of Health). 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892. (800) 422-6237.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (National Institutes of Health). P.O. Box 8218, Silver Spring, MD 20907-8218. (888) 644-6226.

Lata Cherath, Ph.D.
Alison McTavish, M.Sc.

Also check Lung cancer, non-small cell

Johns Hopkins patient information

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