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Small Cell Lung Cancer

An aggressive (fast-growing) cancer that forms in tissues of the lung and can spread to other parts of the body. The cancer cells look small and oval-shaped when looked at under a microscope.

PubMed Health Glossary
(Source: NIH - National Cancer Institute)

About Small Cell Lung Cancer

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 that are found in the chest. The lungs bring oxygen into the body when you breathe in and take out carbon dioxide when you breathe 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 affected by lung cancer. Small tubes called bronchioles and tiny air sacs called alveoli make up the inside of the lungs.

There are two types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.

This summary is about small cell lung cancer and its treatment. See the following PDQ summaries for more... Read more about Small Cell Lung Cancer

What works? Research summarized

Evidence reviews

Venous Thromboembolism: Reducing the Risk of Venous Thromboembolism (Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism) in Patients Admitted to Hospital

Venous thromboembolism (VTE) is a term used to include the formation of a blood clot (a thrombus) in a vein which may dislodge from its site of origin to travel in the blood, a phenomenon called embolism. A thrombus most commonly occurs in the deep veins of the legs; this is called deep vein thrombosis. A dislodged thrombus that travels to the lungs is known as a pulmonary embolism.

Early (less than 30 days after the start of chemotherapy) or late (more than 30 days after the start of chemotherapy) chest radiotherapy for patients suffering from limited small cell lung cancer

Between 7% and 8% of lung cancers are of the type known as limited‐stage small cell tumours. People with this type of cancer have a limited chance of being cured with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It is not known when the optimum time to give chest radiotherapy is in relation to administering chemotherapy treatment. This review indicates that it is unclear whether administering chest radiotherapy within 30 days of beginning chemotherapy or later improves survival. The effect on patients' overall survival is not statistically different, although there is a possibility that the effect is in favour of early chest radiotherapy. The interpretation of the current data is difficult and further research is needed.

Concurrent chemoradiotherapy reduces risk of death at two years compared to sequential chemoradiotherapy or radiotherapy alone in patients with stage III non small cell lung cancer

The use of chemotherapy concurrent with radiotherapy in locally advanced non‐small cell lung cancer may enhance the benefits of radiotherapy in terms of local and regional control and thus improve survival. A total of twenty‐five randomised studies (including 3752 patients) were included in this updated review: nineteen trials (2728 patients) comparing concurrent chemoradiotherapy with radiotherapy alone and six trials (1024 patients) comparing concurrent with sequential chemoradiotherapy. Both comparisons demonstrated significant reduction in risk of death with use of concurrent chemoradiation, with an associated increase in incidence of acute oesophagitis.

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Summaries for consumers

Early (less than 30 days after the start of chemotherapy) or late (more than 30 days after the start of chemotherapy) chest radiotherapy for patients suffering from limited small cell lung cancer

Between 7% and 8% of lung cancers are of the type known as limited‐stage small cell tumours. People with this type of cancer have a limited chance of being cured with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It is not known when the optimum time to give chest radiotherapy is in relation to administering chemotherapy treatment. This review indicates that it is unclear whether administering chest radiotherapy within 30 days of beginning chemotherapy or later improves survival. The effect on patients' overall survival is not statistically different, although there is a possibility that the effect is in favour of early chest radiotherapy. The interpretation of the current data is difficult and further research is needed.

Concurrent chemoradiotherapy reduces risk of death at two years compared to sequential chemoradiotherapy or radiotherapy alone in patients with stage III non small cell lung cancer

The use of chemotherapy concurrent with radiotherapy in locally advanced non‐small cell lung cancer may enhance the benefits of radiotherapy in terms of local and regional control and thus improve survival. A total of twenty‐five randomised studies (including 3752 patients) were included in this updated review: nineteen trials (2728 patients) comparing concurrent chemoradiotherapy with radiotherapy alone and six trials (1024 patients) comparing concurrent with sequential chemoradiotherapy. Both comparisons demonstrated significant reduction in risk of death with use of concurrent chemoradiation, with an associated increase in incidence of acute oesophagitis.

Is chemotherapy beneficial to patients with brain metastases from small cell lung cancer?

Lung carcinoma is the single most common source of brain metastases (BM) in adults. Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) accounts for approximately 20% of all cases of lung cancer. It tends to disseminate early in the course of its natural history and to grow quickly. Approximately 10% to 18% of patients present with BM at the time of initial diagnosis, and an additional 40% to 50% will develop BM some time during the course of their disease.

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Terms to know

Alveoli
Tiny air sacs at the end of the bronchioles (tiny branches of air tubes) in the lungs. The alveoli are where the lungs and the bloodstream exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen. Carbon dioxide in the blood passes into the lungs through the alveoli. Oxygen in the lungs passes through the alveoli into the blood.
Body Membrane
A very thin layer of tissue that covers a surface.
Bronchi
The large air passages that lead from the trachea (windpipe) to the lungs.
Bronchioles
A tiny branch of air tubes in the lungs.
Carbon Dioxide
A colorless, odorless gas. It is a waste product made by the body. Carbon dioxide travels in the blood from the body's tissues to the lungs. Breathing out clears carbon dioxide from the lungs.
Carcinoma
Carcinoma is a cancer found in body tissues that cover or line surfaces of organs, glands, or body structures.
Lobe
A portion of an organ, such as the liver, lung, breast, thyroid, or brain.
Lungs
One of a pair of organs in the chest that supplies the body with oxygen, and removes carbon dioxide from the body.
Oxygen
A colorless, odorless gas. It is needed for animal and plant life. Oxygen that is breathed in enters the blood from the lungs and travels to the tissues.
Pleura
A thin layer of tissue that covers the lungs and lines the interior wall of the chest cavity. It protects and cushions the lungs. This tissue secretes a small amount of fluid that acts as a lubricant, allowing the lungs to move smoothly in the chest cavity while breathing.
Windpipe (Trachea)
The airway that leads from the larynx (voice box) to the bronchi (large airways that lead to the lungs). Also called windpipe.

More about Small Cell Lung Cancer

Photo of an adult

Also called: Oat cell carcinoma of the lung, Small cell carcinoma of the lung, SCLC

See Also: Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Other terms to know: See all 11
Alveoli, Body Membrane, Bronchi

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