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Small cell lung cancer

Small cell lung cancer is fast growing and the most aggressive type of lung cancer that occurs more frequently in men than women. It accounts for approximately 12% of all lung cancers and, in the majority of cases, is the result of smoking. It is quite rare to see patients with small cell lung cancer who have never smoked.

There are two types of small cell lung cancer and the cancer cells of each type will spread in different ways:

  • Small cell carcinoma (also known as oat cell cancer due to the shape of the cancer cells)
  • Combined small cell carcinoma

The disease usually starts in the centre of the chest in the bronchi and spreads widely to lymph nodes and organs such as the bones, brain, liver and adrenal glands. The spread is rapid and often the disease has spread before any noticeable symptoms have been detected.

Small cell lung cancer symptoms

Because small cell lung cancer spreads so quickly, symptoms may not present until well after the disease has spread to other organs. Small cell lung cancer symptoms may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing up blood
  • A persistent cough
  • Repeated cases of pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Swelling in the face and neck
  • Back, rib or hip pain due to spread to the bones
  • Headaches, vision changes, weakness or seizures due to spread to the brain

The fact that this type of lung cancer spreads very rapidly highlights the importance for early detection.

Small cell lung cancer treatment

As with all lung cancers, the type of treatment for small cell lung cancer will depend on the stage of the disease. The most common forms of small cell lung cancer treatments are chemotherapy and radiotherapy and, if the disease is in the early stages there is a potential for cure. Very often, patients in the early stages who respond well to chemotherapy and radiation therapy may also undergo preventative radiation (prophylactic cranio–irradiation) therapy to the brain as small cell lung cancer cells can often spread to the brain but not be detected.

Surgery is very rarely used for small cell lung cancer unless the tumour is detected in the very early stages and there has been no spread outside the lung and nearby lymph nodes.

Small cell lung cancer prognosis

Survival rates for small cell lung cancer will depend on the stage at which the disease was detected as well as other factors such as general health and gender. Women have improved survival rates over men for this type of lung cancer.

The overall survival rate for small cell lung cancer is approximately 6% but please refer to our lung cancer prognosis page for more detailed information about 5-year survival rates for small cell lung cancer at different stages. If the disease is caught at the early stages, 5-year survival rates can be up to 38%.

Lung Cancer Screening

If you are worried about small cell lung cancer or any other type of lung cancer and think you may have symptoms or be at risk, please contact us to arrange a LungCheck. The Lung Check lung cancer screening service is a quick and easy way to detect lung cancer in the early stages and will additionally assess your risk. More information can also be found on our LungCheck lung cancer screening FAQ page.

More information about lung cancer

If you would like further information about lung cancer, please see our lung cancer information page or contact us.

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