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What is small cell lung cancer?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Small cell lung cancer is often a lethal disease, although it can be cured, and chances are you'll be dealing with the condition for the rest of your life. Prognosis for small cell lung cancer is better the sooner the condition is diagnosed. If your doctor catches it early, there's a 50/50 chance you'll live for another five years. If the cancer has spread before your doctor detects it, those chances are much slimmer.

You may experience a variety of symptoms with small-cell lung cancer, but the most common are shortness of breath, excessive and persistent coughing, and chest pain. Other symptoms may include coughing up blood, wheezing, shortness of breath, swollen neck or face, weight loss or fatigue. Your fingertips may also change shape, or the lymph nodes (clusters of immune cells) in your chest or neck may swell noticeably.

There is a 25 percent chance that you will experience no symptoms at all, even if your small-cell lung cancer is advanced. If you experience any of these symptoms, or if you smoke, you should visit your doctor for an official diagnosis or check-up.

Managing your small cell lung cancer means following your treatment plan. Take all prescribed chemotherapy drugs while on a chemotherapy cycle and attend all procedures ordered by your doctor, such as radiation therapy. If you are experiencing symptoms of lung cancer or side effects of treatment (especially chemotherapy), ask your doctor about ways to reduce these side effects, such as medication or acupuncture. You may have emotional side effects as well, blaming yourself or feeling blamed by others for causing your own illness. Support groups may provide a venue for you to vent your feelings to a non-judgmental audience of fellow survivors.

Small cell lung cancer is the most aggressive form of the disease. It makes up about 10-15 percent of lung cancers. Like squamous cell lung cancer, this type usually starts in the central airway of the lungs. It spreads quickly, often before you notice any symptoms, making it particularly life threatening. It frequently spreads (metastasizes) to the liver, bone and brain. Although small cell lung cancer usually responds very well to chemotherapy medications, it is less curable than other types. That's because it usually isn't diagnosed until it has spread.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.