Small Cell Lung Cancer

At a Glance

  • Smoking is the main risk factor for small cell lung cancer (SCLC).
  • It’s a very aggressive form of cancer, which without treatment spreads rapidly.
  • Overall incidence and mortality have been declining, though it is estimated that more than 150,000 Americans will die of SCLC in 2010.
  About Small Cell Lung Cancer Small cell lung cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the lung. Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) accounts for approximately 15% of bronchogenic carcinomas. The overall incidence and mortality rates of SCLC in the United States have decreased during the past few decades. Estimated new cases and deaths from lung cancer (small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer combined) in the United States in 2010 are 222,520 and 157,300 respectively. 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. Compared with other cell types of lung cancer, SCLC is more responsive to chemotherapy and radiation therapy; however, a cure is difficult to achieve because SCLC has a greater tendency to be widely disseminated by the time of diagnosis.


The lungs are a pair of cone-shaped breathing organs that are found within the chest. The lungs bring oxygen into the body when breathing in and take out carbon dioxide when breathing out. Each lung has sections called lobes. The left lung has two lobes. The right lung, which is slightly larger, has three. A thin membrane called the pleura surrounds the lungs. Two tubes called bronchi lead from the trachea (windpipe) to the right and left lungs. The bronchi are sometimes also involved in lung cancer. Small tubes called bronchioles and tiny air sacs called alveoli make up the inside of the lungs.

Types of Small Cell Lung Cancer

There are two types of small cell lung cancer. These two types include many different types of cells. The cancer cells of each type grow and spread in different ways. The types of small cell lung cancer are named for the kinds of cells found in the cancer and how the cells look when viewed under a microscope:
  • Small cell carcinoma (oat cell cancer).
  • Combined small cell carcinoma.

Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Risk factors for small cell lung cancer include:
  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes now or in the past.
  • Being exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Being exposed to asbestos or radon.


Possible signs of small cell lung cancer include:
  • A cough that doesn’t go away.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain that doesn’t go away.
  • Wheezing.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Hoarseness.
  • Swelling of the face and neck.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Unusual tiredness.