How is small cell lung cancer treated?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

The most common treatment for small cell lung cancer is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy medications are taken by mouth or by injection and treat the cancer by attacking the malignant cells. Another possible treatment is radiation therapy, often conducted in conjunction with chemotherapy, in which radiation is directed at the specific areas of the body in which the cancer resides, to kill cancer cells and reduce the size of tumors. Surgery is rarely recommended for small cell lung cancer because this type of lung cancer spreads quickly, and surgery is most effective for cancers that are located in one place.

Acupuncture is an alternative treatment practiced by inserting very thin needles into specific points around your body, just below the surface of the skin. Although not considered part of traditional medical practice, research authorities have determined through clinical trials that acupuncture is effective at reducing nausea, vomiting, and pain resulting from chemotherapy. Doctors are not sure why acupuncture is effective, but some think that the needles stimulate your body's pain-fighting chemicals. It is important to note that acupuncture has not been proven effective at fighting cancer itself, only the side effects of chemotherapy.

Small cell lung cancer tends to spread very quickly and usually has already spread beyond the region where it is discovered. Therefore, removing this area surgically cannot generally stop the cancer from spreading, making chemotherapy the main treatment. Surgery may have some benefit if the cancer is confined to a single lung nodule, but there is not a substantial amount of evidence demonstrating the benefit of surgery; even in these cases, chemotherapy is still recommended.

Treatment options for small cell lung cancer vary depending on your situation, including the stage of the cancer and other factors that may be present. It is ideal to talk with your healthcare team about the approach that is best for you. Overall, the options that are available include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Laser therapy
  • Endoscopic stent placement

Even if the doctor surgically removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the operation, you may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to increase the chances of a cure, is called adjuvant therapy.

People with small-cell lung cancer usually first receive a combination of two to three chemotherapy drugs. The most common combinations are:

  • cisplatin (Platinol) and etoposide (VePesid)
  • carboplatin (Paraplatin) and etoposide (VePesid)
  • cisplatin (Platinol) and irinotecan (Camptosar)
  • carboplatin (Paraplatin) and irinotecan (Camptosar)
  • cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and vincristine (Oncovin)

If the cancer gets worse during treatment or returns after treatment, your doctor may try different chemotherapy drugs depending in part on how soon the cancer begins to grow again.

If the cancer gets worse during treatment or returns within two to three months of when your first treatment ended, your doctor may try:

  • topotecan (Hycamtin)
  • paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • irinotecan (Camptosar)
  • gemcitabine (Gemzar)

Continue Learning about Lung Cancer

The Importance of Adhering to Your Lung Cancer Medication
The Importance of Adhering to Your Lung Cancer Medication
Many treatment plans for lung cancer include medications that are taken as pills or administered with an IV. While every lung cancer treatment plan is...
Read More
Why doesn't lung cancer get as much attention as other cancers?
Raja M. Flores, MDRaja M. Flores, MD
Breast cancer and other cancers often get more sympathy and attention than lung cancer. In this vide...
More Answers
How does secondhand smoke cause lung cancer?
Dr. Frank T. Leone, MDDr. Frank T. Leone, MD
Secondhand smoke, or smoke inhaled when you are near someone smoking, is a risk factor for lung canc...
More Answers
What, Other Than smoking, Causes Lung Cancer?
What, Other Than smoking, Causes 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.