Small Cell Lung Cancer

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Small cell lung cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the lung.

The lungs are a pair of cone-shaped breathing organs in the chest. The lungs bring oxygen into the body as you breathe in. They release carbon dioxide, a waste product of the body’s cells, as you breathe out. Each lung has sections called lobes. The left lung has two lobes. The right lung is slightly larger and has three lobes. Two tubes called bronchi lead from the trachea (windpipe) to the right and left lungs. The bronchi are sometimes also involved in lung cancer. Tiny air sacs called alveoli and small tubes called bronchioles make up the inside of the lungs.

There are two main 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
lung cancer diagram
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Smoking increases the risk of small cell lung cancer.

Smoking cigarettes, pipes, or cigars is the most common cause of lung cancer. The earlier in life a person starts smoking, the more often a person smokes, and the more years a person smokes, the greater the risk of lung cancer. If a person has stopped smoking, the risk becomes lower as the years pass.


These factors increase your chance of developing lung cancer:

  • Smoking cigarettes, pipes, or cigars now or in the past
  • Being exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Having a family history of lung cancer
  • Being treated with radiation therapy to the breast or chest
  • Being exposed to asbestos, chromium, nickel, arsenic, soot, or tar in the workplace
  • Being exposed to radon in the home or workplace
  • Living where there is air pollution
  • Being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Using beta carotene supplements and being a heavy smoker

When smoking is combined with other risk factors, the risk of lung cancer is increased.


Symptoms may include:

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse over time
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Blood in sputum (mucus coughed up from the lungs)
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Feeling very tired
  • Swelling in the face and/or veins in the neck


Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage non-small cell lung cancer are often done at the same time. Some of the following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history
  • Laboratory tests
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • Sputum cytology
  • Fine-needle aspiration biopsy of the lung
  • Bronchoscopy
  • Thoracoscopy
  • Thoracentesis
  • Mediastinoscopy
  • Light and electron microscopy
  • Immunohistochemistry

Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Laser therapy
  • Endoscopic stent placement

Surgery offers the best chance of cure for lung cancer and is the standard lung cancer treatment for patients with early stage (or limited) disease. When formal surgical resection is not feasible, alternatives for the high-risk patient include performance of a limited resection (removing less lung tissue) or the use of stereotactic radiosurgery, which is performed by UVA's radiation oncologists.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.