Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is one of two main types of lung cancer, the other being non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). SCLC is less common and more aggressive than NSCLC. However, treatments can help those with SCLC live longer and possibly enter remission — especially if they are diagnosed before the cancer spreads.

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Written and Fact-Checked by: Lung Cancer Group

What Is Small Cell Lung Cancer?

An image of small cell lung cancer when viewed under a microscope
Micrograph of small cell lung cancer (also known as small cell lung carcinoma or oat cell carcinoma). Small cell lung cancer is aggressive but treatments can help you.

Small cell cancer of the lung is the second most common form of lung cancer. It accounts for 10% to 15% of all lung cancer cases.

SCLC takes its name from the shape of its cells. The cells of this type of lung cancer are round and look similar to oats under a microscope. For this reason, doctors also call SCLC oat cell cancer.

SCLC typically forms in the lung’s airways before spreading to other parts of the body. This type of cancer spreads very quickly. By the time most patients are diagnosed, the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body, like the liver, lymph nodes, or even the brain.

Fortunately, medical care can help those with SCLC live longer and some may be totally cancer-free after treatment.

Lung Cancer Group may be able to help you and your loved ones afford medical care and pursue justice after an SCLC diagnosis. Learn more with a free case review right now.

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What Causes Small Cell Lung Cancer?

The most common cause of SCLC is tobacco and cigarette smoking, according to leading cancer organizations like the American Cancer Society (ACS) and Yale Medicine.

“It’s very rare for someone who has never smoked to have SCLC. The risk for lung cancer among smokers is many times higher than among non-smokers. The longer you smoke, and the more packs per day you smoke, the greater your risk.”

— American Cancer Society

People can also develop SCLC if they were exposed to secondhand smoke, radon, asbestos, and other cancer-causing chemicals.

Small Cell Lung Cancer and Asbestos Exposure

An older man removes asbestos from a building. Caution tape is draped in front of the building's entrance.Asbestos is a particularly insidious cause of SCLC. Someone can develop SCLC (or any other type of lung cancer) if they swallow or breathe in stray asbestos fibers.

Asbestos is a very strong material made up of tiny fibers. It was used in thousands of products like insulation, tiles, and even makeup, between the 1930s and early 1980s (before the dangers were widely known).

If inhaled, asbestos fibers can gradually damage the lungs, causing lung cancer tumors to form decades after exposure.

What makes SCLC cases linked to asbestos so awful is that many cases could have been avoided. Many manufacturers of asbestos-containing products knew the risks back in the 1930s. However, they hid the awful truths to keep their multimillion-dollar industry afloat.

Companies that used asbestos let people get sick in the name of profit. At Lung Cancer Group, we find this unacceptable. Let us help you pursue justice and compensation right now: Get a free case review.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Symptoms

SCLC shares the same symptoms as NSCLC, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Symptoms of small cell lung cancer include:
  • A cough that won’t go away or gets worse
  • Bloody mucus coughed up from lungs (sputum)
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing and swallowing
  • Fatigue
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen face and/or neck veins
  • Weight loss

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) encourages anyone experiencing the symptoms listed above to see a doctor. Doctors can find out if your symptoms are caused by lung cancer and help you get treatment.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Diagnosis

To diagnose SCLC, your doctor will first note down what symptoms you have. They may also ask if you ever smoked or were exposed to other cancer-causing substances like asbestos.

From there, your doctors will likely conduct imaging scans to look inside your body for growths or masses that could be cancerous.

Imaging scans that may be used to diagnose SCLC include:

  • CT (computed tomography) scans
  • PET (positron emission tomography) scans
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans
  • X-rays

A doctor holds up a chest X-rayImaging scans alone won’t be enough to make an SCLC diagnosis, though. Your doctor will order a biopsy if they think you have cancer after these tests.

Through a biopsy, the doctor will take out a small sample of tissue or fluid from a part of the body that may be cancerous. The sample can be extracted using a bronchoscopy (small tube with a light on the end that’s passed down the windpipe into the lungs), a needle, or another instrument.

The biopsy sample is then looked at under a microscope in a lab. Here, pathologists (doctors who look at fluid/tissue samples) will see which type of lung cancer cells (if any) are present.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Stages

There are two stages of small cell lung cancer. Doctors can determine which stage a patient is in at the time of diagnosis.

  • Limited-Stage Small Cell Lung Cancer

    Limited-Stage Small Cell Lung Cancer

    In cases of limited-stage SCLC, the cancer is relatively contained.

    The NCI notes that cases of limited-stage SCLC are either in just the lung where the cancer started or have just started to spread into nearby lymph nodes in the collarbone and the mediastinum (space between lungs in the chest).

    Around 33% of SCLC patients will be diagnosed in this stage, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

  • Extensive-Stage Small Cell Lung Cancer

    Extensive-Stage Small Cell Lung Cancer

    Extensive-stage SCLC has spread past the lung and into other parts of the body, like the bones, bone marrow, or brain. This spread is known as metastasis.

    Sadly, most patients won’t be diagnosed early on as symptoms usually appear only after SCLC tumors have spread. Extended-stage SCLC accounts for roughly 66% of all diagnoses.

    This fact shows why it’s important to see a doctor for a diagnosis early on if you think something is wrong. You’ll likely have more treatment options available if you’re diagnosed with limited-stage SCLC.

You may qualify for financial payouts no matter what stage of SCLC you have. Learn more with a free case review.

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Types of Small Cell Lung Cancer

There are two types of small cell lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Doctors determine which type of SCLC a patient has when looking at the types of cells they see during a biopsy.

  • Small Cell Carcinoma

    Small Cell Carcinoma

    In cases of small cell carcinoma, SCLC tumors contain only small cells. It is also known as oat cell carcinoma. Small cell carcinoma is the most common type of SCLC, according to the Mount Sinai Health System.

  • Combined Small Cell Lung Carcinoma

    Combined Small Cell Lung Carcinoma

    Combined small cell lung carcinoma (C-SCLC) is when a patient’s tumors have both small cells and cells from one or more types of NSCLC. Cases of C-SCLC account for anywhere from 5% and nearly 30% of all SCLC cases, according to various studies analyzed by the journal OncoTargets and Therapy.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Prognosis

A prognosis is the projected outcome of a particular disease. Generally speaking, the prognosis for SCLC is poor. Most SCLC patients are diagnosed after the cancer has spread and thus only live a few months after diagnosis.

That said, some patients can live much longer. Unique patient factors can greatly affect an SCLC prognosis.

These factors include:

  • Age: Younger patients will likely be stronger, meaning doctors can try more aggressive treatment plans to destroy as much of the cancer as possible.
  • Cell type: Patients with C-SCLC that qualify for surgery may have a better prognosis than patients with small cell carcinoma (who usually cannot get surgeries).
  • Overall health: Patients without other pre-existing health problems may better tolerate medical treatments.
  • Stage of the cancer: Early-stage patients have a better health outlook than those with extensive disease. The further the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis, the less treatment options will be available.

Prognosis is often measured using two factors: life expectancy and patient survival rate.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Life Expectancy

Life expectancy is how long a doctor believes a patient will live. Patients with SCLC often face a low life expectancy.

  • Limited-stage SCLC patients have a life expectancy of 18 to 23 months
  • Extensive-stage SCLC patients live for 8 to 10 months on average

Further, the overall life expectancy was only 7 months in a 30-year study of SCLC patients by the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registry.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Survival Rate

Survival rate is the average number of patients still alive after a set period of time. It’s typically measured in years and given as a percentage.

Here are average SCLC survival rates from the Cleveland Clinic:

  • The 5-year survival rate for limited-stage SCLC is 20%
  • The 5-year survival rate for extensive-stage SCLC is 3%

That said, it’s possible to live much longer than expected with SCLC. Life expectancies and survival rates are averages, and there are patients who have lived for years or even decades with SCLC.

Learn how you can afford treatments to improve your small cell lung cancer prognosis. Call (877) 446-5767 to get started.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment Options

Medical care is the most important way for patients with small cell cancer of the lung to live longer. SCLC is typically treated with chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and/or radiation, according to the ACS. Surgery is also used in rare cases.

“Lung cancer is treatable, no matter the size, location, whether the cancer has spread, and how far it has spread.”

— American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)

Learn about small cell lung cancer treatments below.


Doctors use chemotherapy (cancer-killing medication) to kill SCLC cells and shrink tumors. Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for SCLC, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Chemotherapy medications kill cancer cells within the entire body, not just in the lung. This makes chemotherapy an important treatment for SCLC patients, as most are diagnosed after the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

There are several chemotherapy drugs that can be used to treat SCLC. These include cisplatin, carboplatin, and etoposide. Doctors often give SCLC patients more than one type of chemotherapy at once in what’s called a regimen, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD).

“SCLC is highly responsive to chemotherapy and sometimes improvement can be rapid and dramatic. However, cancer often returns and may become resistant to the chemotherapy regimen that was successful in the past.”

— National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD)

Immunotherapy for SCLC

Cancer cells can sometimes hide from the immune system. Immunotherapy medications boost the patient’s immune system so it can find and destroy cancer cells.

Currently, two immunotherapy medications have been approved to treat SCLC: Tecentriq (atezolizumab) and Imfinzi (durvalumab). Both of these are immune checkpoint inhibitors, meaning they prevent the cancer cells from hiding from the immune system.

Immunotherapy is often combined with chemotherapy to treat SCLC as it may help some patients live longer, according to the ACS.

Radiation Therapy

Doctors use radiation (energy beams similar to X-rays, but much stronger) to destroy cancer cells. There are several types of radiation therapy. The most commonly used type to treat SCLC is called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT).

Through EBRT, the radiation is given through a machine. An SCLC patient typically gets a few minutes of EBRT 1-2 times every weekday for 3-7 weeks, according to the ACS.

Besides its use as a main treatment, radiation can also be used:

  • During/after chemotherapy treatments
  • On the brain to prevent SCLC from spreading there
  • To reduce cancer symptoms

Radiation itself is painless, but can lead to side effects like hair loss, tiredness, and nausea. Check with your doctor ahead of time so you can be aware of any possible side effects.


A group of doctors in blue medical outfits operate on a patientThe ACS notes that only 5% of SCLC patients can undergo surgery. Doctors can perform surgery if there’s only one lung tumor found during a diagnosis. The tumor can then be surgically removed.

Doctors will recommend follow-up treatments like chemotherapy after surgery to ensure that the cancer doesn’t return.

Unfortunately, most SCLC patients will be diagnosed only after the cancer has spread through their bodies, meaning they won’t qualify for surgical treatment.

Other Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment Options

Besides the SCLC treatments listed above, there are a handful of other lung cancer treatments that doctors may sometimes use to help patients.

Additional SCLC treatments include:

  • Laser therapy: Destroying cancer tumors using a strong beam of light.
  • Pain-relieving medications: Used to help reduce cancer symptoms and side effects of other treatments.
  • Stent placement: Placing a short tube into an airway that’s otherwise blocked by cancer cells.
  • Supplemental oxygen: Giving oxygen to help improve a patient’s breathing.

Further, cancer research programs are testing new SCLC treatment options through clinical trials. Certain SCLC patients may qualify to join a clinical trial depending on the unique factors in their case.

Reach out to your lung cancer health care team if you’re interested in joining an SCLC clinical trial.

Help for Small Cell Lung Cancer Patients

Being diagnosed with small cell lung cancer — or any type of cancer — is devastating. While SCLC is a less common and more aggressive form of lung cancer, there is hope.

  • Doctors across the country treat SCLC
  • Lung cancer treatments can help you live longer and ease pain
  • Other SCLC patients have lived for years or decades in some cases

Lung Cancer Group may be able to help you afford medical care for SCLC. Learn more: Get a free case review right now.

FAQs on Small Cell Lung Cancer

What is the survival rate of small cell lung cancer?

SCLC has a low average survival rate since it’s very aggressive and most patients are diagnosed only after the cancer has spread. The overall 5-year survival rate for SCLC patients is just 7%, according to ASCO.

However, it’s possible that you could live for 5 years or longer depending on how your body responds to treatment, how far the cancer has spread by the time of your diagnosis, and more.

While small cell lung cancer is more aggressive than non-small cell lung cancer, it’s not always terminal. Treatments will be available no matter how advanced the cancer is when you’re diagnosed.

Your doctors will give you an expected prognosis when they first diagnose you, and will do everything they can to help you live longer with SCLC.

Call (877) 446-5767 now to learn if you qualify for financial payouts that can help you afford medical care for SCLC.

Yes, in some cases. While there’s no official cure for lung cancer (or any type of cancer), some patients may be considered ‘cured’ if their body responds well to treatment. These patients won’t have any symptoms of lung cancer and will live their lives normally.

Talk to your doctor about cancer care options that can help you live longer or possibly cure you of SCLC.

Yes. You could develop small cell lung cancer if you were exposed to asbestos fibers and the fibers got stuck inside your lungs. Asbestos fibers damage healthy lung tissue and cause SCLC tumors to form decades later.

Asbestos exposure can also cause any other type of lung cancer, as well as mesothelioma (a cancer of the linings of major organs), asbestosis (a noncancerous illness that weakens the lungs), and other diseases.

SCLC spreads very quickly. According to a series of studies analyzed by Clinical Medicine Insights: Oncology, SCLC tumors can double in size in anywhere from 25 to 217 days.

Thankfully, SCLC also shrinks rapidly after treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, according to Dr. Henry Park of Yale Medicine.

Yes. Some people diagnosed with small cell lung cancer have gone on to become cancer-free thanks to medical treatment. These patients became SCLC survivors.

Some long-term SCLC survivors have lived 15 years or longer after being diagnosed. These survivors should inspire hope if you’ve been recently diagnosed. Even if your prognosis is poor, you still could become a survivor.

The biggest risk factor for small cell lung cancer is smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products. Most people diagnosed with SCLC are either former or current smokers.

Further, you’re at a high risk of any type of lung cancer — as well as other asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma — if you regularly worked with or around asbestos-based products.

You are encouraged to get lung cancer screenings if you regularly smoked but don’t have lung cancer. Doing so can help doctors possibly catch cancerous tumors before they spread.

Lung Cancer Group was established by a team of caring advocates so those with lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases can get the help they deserve. Our site provides the most accurate and up-to-date information about lung cancer, its link to asbestos, and financial compensation available to patients. Contact us to learn more and get assistance.

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