What is small cell lung cancer?

When cells in your body grow in an uncontrolled way, cancer can develop. These cells often gather together and form a mass called a tumor. When this happens in the lungs, it's called lung cancer. There are two main types of lung cancer, small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.

Small cell lung cancer grows very quickly and spreads through the lungs and often other parts of the body.

Among those who have lung cancer, 10–15% of these people have small cell lung cancer.

Common related conditions
Lung Cancer

Causes of small cell lung cancer

Doctors don't always know the exact cause of each person's lung cancer, but they do know that the most common cause of small cell lung cancer is smoking tobacco. Non-smokers who have small cell lung cancer may have gotten it through:

Secondhand smoke

If you live with someone who smokes, you're 30% more likely to develop lung cancer than people who don't live with smokers. This is because you breathe in the harmful chemicals from the tobacco, even though you're not actually smoking.


Uranium miners are at risk from exposure to radon, a gas that forms when uranium gets older and starts to break down. Radon is known to cause small cell lung cancer in some people.


Asbestos is a natural mineral found in older buildings and homes. It was used to make insulation and other construction materials until scientists discovered it to be harmful. Asbestos fibers are breathed in and get trapped in the body, causing diseases including small cell lung cancer.

Diesel exhaust, pollution and other chemicals

Chemicals in certain work places are also known to cause small cell lung cancer.

If you're exposed to any of these things and are also a smoker, you're at an even greater risk for developing small cell lung cancer.

Risk factors of small cell lung cancer

In addition to the causes of small cell lung cancer, a few other things put you at risk for developing the diseases:

  • Having radiation therapy to the lungs for another disease like Hodgkin's lymphoma or breast cancer
  • Having previously had lung cancer
  • Having a family member with lung cancer

Symptoms of small cell lung cancer

People who have small cell lung cancer usually have these symptoms:

  • Coughing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain, especially when taking deep breaths

If you have these symptoms, visit a doctor. Since small cell lung cancer spreads quickly, other symptoms and damage occur if it spreads to other parts of the body.

Diagnosis of small cell lung cancer

When you have symptoms of small cell lung cancer, a doctor will perform some tests to see if it really is the disease. These tests include:

  • Patient history — the doctor asks about your medical history, surgeries, the kind of work you do and if you've ever smoked.
  • Physical exam
  • Imaging — tests like a chest x-ray and/or CT scan help a doctor see if there are any tumors in the lungs.
  • Thoracentesis — a needle removes fluid from the lungs, and it is tested for cancer cells.
  • Bronchoscopy — a thin tube with a light and camera on the end of it goes down your windpipe through the mouth or nose; the doctor can see if there are any tumors in your lungs and airways and get a sample of cells (biopsy) to be tested.
  • Lung biopsy — if a tumor can't be reached with a bronchoscopy, a needle is used to take a sample of the tumor cells through the chest.

Treatments for small cell lung cancer

How early you catch the disease, how far it has spread and how comfortable you are with certain treatments influence the type of treatment for small cell lung cancer. The main treatments are:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery

People often take medication in addition to one of these treatments. The most common medication for small cell lung cancer is cisplatin.

Recovery from small cell lung cancer

Treatments for small cell lung cancer can totally remove the disease or it may never go away and you need continued treatment. There's also a chance with any cancer that it might come back. Therefore, it's very important to have regular follow-up visits with your doctor, reduce risk factors like smoking and secondhand smoke and follow your doctor's instructions for care.

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