Small cell lung cancer is a rare fast-growing lung cancer. It can affect anyone but it typically affects people who have a long history of smoking tobacco. Healthcare providers can cure some people if the disease is found early; for others, they can help them live longer. The only way to prevent small cell lung cancer is to stop smoking.
Small cell lung cancer is a rare fast-growing lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer can affect anyone, but it typically affects people who have a long history of tobacco use, specifically smoking cigarettes. Healthcare providers can cure some people if the disease is found early; for others, they can help them live longer. The only way to prevent small cell lung cancer is to stop smoking.
Small cell lung cancer starts when healthy cells in your lungs mutate or change into cancerous cells. These cells then divide and multiply uncontrollably. Eventually, the cancerous cells clump together in masses (tumors) in your lungs.
These tumors may shed cancer cells that your blood or lymph pick up and carry throughout your body. (Lymph is fluid that travels through your body to your lymph nodes.)
Small cell lung cancer typically spreads to:
Once the cells have spread, they may create new cancerous tumors in your lymph nodes and organs. Small cell lung cancer may also cause fluid to build up in your lungs or in the space around your lungs. It can make your lung collapse by pushing air out of your lung. This is called a pleural effusion.
Small cell lung cancer that hasn’t spread rarely causes symptoms. When symptoms happen, they may include:
Many of these symptoms are similar to other less serious conditions. Having one or more of these symptoms isn’t a sign you have small cell lung cancer. That said, if you smoke or you used to smoke and you notice these types of symptoms, talk to a healthcare provider. They’ll evaluate your situation and recommend any next steps.
While anyone can get lung cancer, people who smoke, used to smoke or who are exposed to tobacco smoke (second-hand smoke) have an increased risk of developing small cell lung cancer. Other risk factors include:
Chest X-rays are typically the first step to evaluate someone for any type of lung cancer. If images show suspicious spots on your lung, a healthcare provider may order one or more of these diagnostic tests:
Healthcare providers use a two-stage system to diagnose the spread of small cell lung cancer. This information also helps guide treatment. The two stages of small cell lung cancer are:
Treatment depends on many factors including your age, overall health and cancer stage. Treatment options include:
There are options your healthcare provider may recommend and you may want to consider, such as:
Avoiding tobacco is the best way to prevent small cell lung cancer. If you currently smoke tobacco, try to quit as soon as possible. Regardless of how old you are or how long you’ve been smoking, your lungs begin to heal as soon as you stop. Giving your lungs a chance to heal reduces your risk of developing small cell lung cancer. If you smoke tobacco and want to quit, ask a healthcare provider about smoking cessation treatment and programs.
Unlike other types of lung cancer, there isn’t a screening test for small cell lung cancer.
These steps may also help:
Small cell lung cancer is a very aggressive illness. Without treatment, most people with small cell lung cancer die a few months after they’re diagnosed. Healthcare providers can treat small cell lung cancer, but the disease often comes back. A 2020 study showed more than 50% of people treated for small cell lung cancer had a recurrence, meaning the cancer came back. According to 2020 data, about 7% of all people with small cell lung cancer were alive five years after diagnosis.
Many factors affect small cell lung cancer prognoses:
There’s no question that the prognoses for small cell lung cancer are grim. It’s important to remember a prognosis is what may happen, not what will happen. If you have small cell lung cancer and want to know your prognosis, ask your healthcare provider to explain what you may expect.
Survival rates are estimates based on the experiences of groups of people. About 70% of people with small cell lung cancer aren’t diagnosed until after the cancer has spread (extensive-stage small cell lung cancer.) These people have fewer treatment options. According to 2020 data:
Remember — just like prognoses, survival rates are estimates based on the experiences of groups of people. What’s happened to other people may not apply in your situation.
Surgery and other cancer treatment can be physically challenging. You may feel exhausted after completing treatment. Here are some things you can do to stay strong through treatment:
If you have small cell lung cancer, you may want to ask your healthcare provider:
There are several differences:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
More people with small cell lung cancer are living longer thanks to early cancer screenings and newer treatments. Healthcare providers have treatments to help people to live longer and with a good quality of life and that may cure some people
Tobacco use causes small cell lung cancer. If you smoke, try to stop. It’s never too late to stop smoking, even if you already have lung cancer. Ask your healthcare provider for help finding smoking cessation programs.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/28/2022.
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