What is small cell lung cancer?

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Small cell lung cancer is less common than non-small cell lung cancer. It grows more rapidly and is more likely to spread to other organs in the body.

Lung cancer usually begins in one lung. If left untreated, it can spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the chest, including the other lung. Lung cancer can also spread throughout the body to the bones, brain, liver, or other organs.

Dr. Vijay K. Nuthakki, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Small cell lung cancer is the lesser common type of two types of lung cancer, the other being non-small cell lung cancer. In small cell lung cancer, cancer cells (also known as malignant cells) grow very quickly in the tissue of the lungs. Small cell lung cancer may form tumors in the lungs themselves or in the bronchi, the two major airways leading from the trachea to either lung. Small cell lung cancers are usually more aggressive and can grow rapidly. They can also spread to other sites in the body by the time of diagnosis. They are sensitive to chemotherapy and radiation and recently surgery is considered to have a role in the early stage of this disease.

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.

Small cell lung cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the lung.

There are two types of small cell lung cancer, and these include many different types of cells. The cancer cells of each type grow and spread in different ways. The types of small cell lung cancer are named for the kinds of cells found in the cancer and how the cells look when viewed under a microscope:

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

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.

Primary cancers of the lung are generally divided into two groups: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. The term “primary” means that the cancer originated from the cells in the lung rather than spreading to the lung from another organ. Small cell lung cancer is the less common type, making up about 15 percent of all primary lung cancers. Small cell lung cancer tends to spread more rapidly than non-small cell lung cancer, and it is usually treated with chemotherapy rather than surgery. This is in contrast to non-small cell lung cancer, where surgical treatment is preferred if the tumor is detected at an early stage.

Continue Learning about Lung Cancer

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.