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Lung cancer, lateral chest X-ray
Lung cancer, lateral chest X-ray

Lung cancer, frontal chest X-ray
Lung cancer, frontal chest X-ray

Adenocarcinoma - chest X-ray
Adenocarcinoma - chest X-ray

Bronchial cancer - CT scan
Bronchial cancer - CT scan

Bronchial cancer - chest X-ray
Bronchial cancer - chest X-ray

Lung with squamous cell cancer - CT scan
Lung with squamous cell cancer - CT scan

Lung cancer - chemotherapy treatment
Lung cancer - chemotherapy treatment


Large cell carcinoma
Large cell carcinoma

Small cell carcinoma
Small cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma

Secondhand smoke and lung cancer
Secondhand smoke and lung cancer

Normal lungs and alveoli
Normal lungs and alveoli

Respiratory system
Respiratory system

Smoking hazards
Smoking hazards



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

There are three different types of small cell lung cancer:

  • Small cell carcinoma (oat cell cancer)
  • Mixed small cell/large cell carcinoma
  • Combined small cell carcinoma

Most small cell lung cancers are the oat cell type.

Alternative Names:

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

Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

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

Smoking almost always causes small cell lung cancer. This type of lung cancer is rare in those who have never smoked.

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

Signs and tests:

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

When listening to the chest with a stethoscope, the health care provider can sometimes hear fluid around the lungs. This could (but does not always) suggest cancer.

Small cell lung cancer has usually spread by the time it is diagnosed.

Tests that may be performed include:

In some cases, the health care provider may need to remove a piece of tissue from your lungs for examination under a microscope. This is called a biopsy. There are several ways to do this:

Usually, if a biopsy reveals 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.) However, the traditional staging system, which uses numbers to tell how bad the cancer is, is usually not used for patients with SCLC. Instead, SCLC is grouped as either:

  • Limited (cancer is only in the chest and can be treated with radiation therapy)
  • Extensive (cancer has spread outside the chest)

Most cases are extensive.


Because small cell lung cancer spreads quickly throughout the body, treatment must include cancer-killing drugs (chemotherapy) taken by mouth or injected into the body. Chemotherapy may be combined with high-powered x-rays (radiation therapy).

Surgery is rarely used to treat small cell lung cancer. It is only considered if it is limited small cell lung cancer with only one tumor that hasn't spread. Chemotherapy or radiation will be needed after surgery. However, because the disease has usually spread by the time it is diagnosed, very few patients with small cell lung cancer are candidates for surgery.

Combination chemotherapy and radiation treatment is given to people with extensive small cell lung cancer. However, the treatment only helps relieve symptoms. It does not cure the disease.

Some patients with limited small cell lung cancer may receive radiation therapy to the head after they have completed treatment for the lung area. This method, called prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI), helps prevent any lung cancer from spreading to the brain.

Support Groups:

For additional information and resources, see cancer support group .

Expectations (prognosis):

How well you do depends on how much the lung cancer has spread.

Without treatment, the average survival is 2 -4 months. Treatment can often prolong life to 6 - 12 months in patients with extensive disease. About 10% of patients with limited spread will show no evidence of cancer at 2 years.

This type of cancer is very deadly. Only about 6% of people with this type of cancer are still alive after 5 years.


Calling your health care provider:

Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of lung cancer (particularly if you smoke).


If you smoke, stop smoking. It's never too early to quit. Try to avoid secondhand smoke.

Routine screening for lung cancer is not recommended. Many studies have been done to look at the idea, but scientists have concluded that, at this time, screening would not help improve a person’s chance for a cure.


American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2006. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society; 2006.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Lung cancer screening. Ann Int Med. 2004;140:738-739.

Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE, Kastan MB, McKena WG. Clinical Oncology. 3rd ed. Orlando, Fl: Churchill Livingstone; 2004:1708-1722.

Jackman DM, Johnson BE. Small-cell lung cancer. Lancet. 2005;366:1385-1396.

Review Date: 9/4/2008
Reviewed By: Sean O. Stitham, MD, private practice in Internal Medicine, Seattle, Washington; and James R. Mason, MD, Oncologist, Director, Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program and Stem Cell Processing Lab, Scripps Clinic, Torrey Pines, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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Wentworth-Douglass Hospital
789 Central Avenue, Dover, NH 03820
Phone: (603) 742-5252
Toll free: 1 (877) 201-7100