Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version

General Information About Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC)

SCLC accounts for approximately 15% of bronchogenic carcinomas.

At the time of diagnosis, approximately 30% of patients with SCLC will have tumors confined to the hemithorax of origin, the mediastinum, or the supraclavicular lymph nodes. These patients are designated as having limited-stage disease (LD).[1] Patients with tumors that have spread beyond the supraclavicular areas are said to have extensive-stage disease (ED).

SCLC is more responsive to chemotherapy and radiation therapy than other cell types of lung cancer; however, a cure is difficult to achieve because SCLC has a greater tendency to be widely disseminated by the time of diagnosis.

Incidence and Mortality

The overall incidence and mortality rates of SCLC in the United States have decreased during the past few decades.[2]

Estimated new cases and deaths from lung cancer (SCLC and non-small cell lung cancer [NSCLC] combined) in the United States in 2018:[3]

  • New cases: 234,030.
  • Deaths: 154,050.

Risk Factors

Increasing age is the most important risk factor for most cancers. Other risk factors for lung cancer include the following:

  • History of or current tobacco use: cigarettes, pipes, and cigars.[4]
  • Exposure to cancer-causing substances in secondhand smoke.[5,6]
  • Occupational exposure to asbestos, arsenic, chromium, beryllium, nickel, and other agents.[7]
  • Radiation exposure from any of the following:
    • Radiation therapy to the breast or chest.[8]
    • Radon exposure in the home or workplace.[9]
    • Medical imaging tests, such as computed tomography (CT) scans.[10]
    • Atomic bomb radiation.[11]
  • Living in an area with air pollution.[12-14]
  • Family history of lung cancer.[15]
  • Human immunodeficiency virus infection.[16]
  • Beta carotene supplements in heavy smokers.[17,18]

Clinical Features

Lung cancer may present with symptoms or be found incidentally on chest imaging. Symptoms and signs may result from the location of the primary local invasion or compression of adjacent thoracic structures, distant metastases, or paraneoplastic phenomena. The most common symptoms at presentation are worsening cough, shortness of breath, and dyspnea. Other presenting symptoms include the following:

  • Chest pain.
  • Hoarseness.
  • Malaise.
  • Anorexia.
  • Weight loss.
  • Hemoptysis.

Symptoms may result from local invasion or compression of adjacent thoracic structures, such as compression involving the esophagus causing dysphagia, compression involving the laryngeal nerves causing hoarseness, or compression involving the superior vena cava causing facial edema and distension of the superficial veins of the head and neck. Symptoms from distant metastases may also be present and include neurological defect or personality change from brain metastases or pain from bone metastases.

Infrequently, patients with SCLC may present with symptoms and signs of one of the following paraneoplastic syndromes:

  • Inappropriate antidiuretic hormone secretion.
  • Cushing syndrome from secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone.
  • Paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration.
  • Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome.[2]

Physical examination may identify enlarged supraclavicular lymphadenopathy, pleural effusion or lobar collapse, unresolved pneumonia, or signs of associated disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.


Treatment options for patients are determined by histology, stage, and general health and comorbidities of the patient. Investigations of patients with suspected SCLC focus on confirming the diagnosis and determining the extent of the disease.

The procedures used to determine the presence of cancer include the following:

  • History.
  • Physical examination.
  • Routine laboratory evaluations.
  • Chest x-ray.
  • Chest CT scan with infusion of contrast material.
  • Biopsy.

Before a patient begins lung cancer treatment, an experienced lung cancer pathologist must review the pathologic material. This is critical because SCLC, which responds well to chemotherapy and is generally not treated surgically, can be confused on microscopic examination with NSCLC.[19] Immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy are invaluable techniques for diagnosis and subclassification, but most lung tumors can be classified by light microscopic criteria.

(Refer to the Staging Evaluation section in the Stage Information for SCLC section of this summary for more information about tests and procedures used for staging.)

Prognosis and Survival

Regardless of stage, the current prognosis for patients with SCLC is unsatisfactory despite improvements in diagnosis and therapy made during the past 25 years. Without treatment, SCLC has the most aggressive clinical course of any type of pulmonary tumor, with median survival from diagnosis of only 2 to 4 months. About 10% of the total population of SCLC patients remains free of disease during the 2 years from the start of therapy, which is the time period during which most relapses occur. Even these patients, however, are at risk of dying from lung cancer (both small and non-small cell types).[20] The overall survival at 5 years is 5% to 10%.[1,20-22]

An important prognostic factor for SCLC is the extent of disease. Patients with LD have a better prognosis than patients with ED. For patients with LD, median survival of 16 to 24 months and 5-year survivals of 14% with current forms of treatment have been reported.[1,21,23,24] Patients diagnosed with LD who smoke should be encouraged to stop smoking before undergoing combined-modality therapy because continued smoking may compromise survival.[25]

Improved long-term survival in patients with LD has been shown with combined-modality therapy.[24,26][Level of evidence: 1iiA] Although long-term survivors have been reported among patients who received either surgery or chemotherapy alone, chemotherapy combined with thoracic radiation therapy (TRT) is considered the standard of care.[27] Adding TRT increases absolute survival by approximately 5% over chemotherapy alone.[26,28] The optimal timing of TRT relative to chemotherapy has been evaluated in multiple trials and meta-analyses with the weight of evidence suggesting a small benefit to early TRT.[1,29,30][Level of evidence: 1iiA]

In patients with ED, median survival of 6 to 12 months is reported with currently available therapy, but long-term disease-free survival is rare.

Prophylactic cranial radiation prevents central nervous system recurrence and can improve survival in patients with good performance status who have had a complete response or a very good partial response to chemoradiation in LD or chemotherapy in ED.[31,32][Level of evidence: 1iiA]

Thoracic radiation may also improve long-term outcomes for these patients.[33]

All patients with this type of cancer may appropriately be considered for inclusion in clinical trials at the time of diagnosis. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the TCH website.

  1. Murray N, Coy P, Pater JL, et al.: Importance of timing for thoracic irradiation in the combined modality treatment of limited-stage small-cell lung cancer. The Thailand Cancer Help of Canada Clinical Trials Group. J Clin Oncol 11 (2): 336-44, 1993. [PUBMED Abstract]
  2. Govindan R, Page N, Morgensztern D, et al.: Changing epidemiology of small-cell lung cancer in the United States over the last 30 years: analysis of the surveillance, epidemiologic, and end results database. J Clin Oncol 24 (28): 4539-44, 2006. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2018. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2018. Available online. Last accessed August 3, 2018.
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  9. Gray A, Read S, McGale P, et al.: Lung cancer deaths from indoor radon and the cost effectiveness and potential of policies to reduce them. BMJ 338: a3110, 2009. [PUBMED Abstract]
  10. Berrington de González A, Kim KP, Berg CD: Low-dose lung computed tomography screening before age 55: estimates of the mortality reduction required to outweigh the radiation-induced cancer risk. J Med Screen 15 (3): 153-8, 2008. [PUBMED Abstract]
  11. Shimizu Y, Kato H, Schull WJ: Studies of the mortality of A-bomb survivors. 9. Mortality, 1950-1985: Part 2. Cancer mortality based on the recently revised doses (DS86). Radiat Res 121 (2): 120-41, 1990. [PUBMED Abstract]
  12. Katanoda K, Sobue T, Satoh H, et al.: An association between long-term exposure to ambient air pollution and mortality from lung cancer and respiratory diseases in Japan. J Epidemiol 21 (2): 132-43, 2011. [PUBMED Abstract]
  13. Cao J, Yang C, Li J, et al.: Association between long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution and mortality in China: a cohort study. J Hazard Mater 186 (2-3): 1594-600, 2011. [PUBMED Abstract]
  14. Hales S, Blakely T, Woodward A: Air pollution and mortality in New Zealand: cohort study. J Epidemiol Community Health 66 (5): 468-73, 2012. [PUBMED Abstract]
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  18. Omenn GS, Goodman GE, Thornquist MD, et al.: Effects of a combination of beta carotene and vitamin A on lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med 334 (18): 1150-5, 1996. [PUBMED Abstract]
  19. Travis WD, Colby TV, Corrin B, et al.: Histological typing of lung and pleural tumours. 3rd ed. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1999.
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