If You Have Small Cell Lung Cancer

What is lung cancer?

Cancer is not just one disease. There are many types of cancer. But all cancers start when a group of cells in the body grows out of control. Cancer cells keep on growing and can crowd out normal cells. This makes it hard for the body to work the way it should.

Cancer can start any place in the body. It can start in the breast, the lungs, the colon, or even in the blood. Cancer that starts in the lung is called lung cancer.

Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body. For instance, cancer cells in the lung can travel to the bone and grow there. When cancer cells spread, it’s called metastasis (muh-TAS-tuh-sis).

Cancer is always named for the place where it starts. So when lung cancer spreads to the brain (or any other place), it’s still called lung cancer. It’s not called brain cancer unless it starts in the brain.

illustration showing the lungs in relation to the trachea, bronchus and bronchioles with details of the bronchioles showing the alveoli

 The lungs

Ask your doctor to show you on this picture where your cancer is found.


The lungs

The lungs are 2 sponge-like organs found in the chest. The right lung has 3 parts called lobes. The left lung has 2 lobes. The left lung is smaller because the heart takes up more room on that side of the body. The lungs bring air in and push it out of the body. They take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide, a waste product.

The windpipe, or trachea (TRAY-key-uh), brings air down into the lungs. It splits into 2 tubes called bronchi (BRONG-ki). (Just 1 is called a bronchus [BRONG-kus].)

Are there different kinds of lung cancer?

There are 2 main types of lung cancer:

  • Small cell lung cancer
  • Non-small cell lung cancer

They are not treated the same way. This only covers small cell lung cancer. Call the ACS or go to www.cancer.org to learn about non-small cell lung cancer.

Questions to ask the doctor

  • Why do you think I might have lung cancer?
  • Could my symptoms be caused by something else?
  • Would you please write down the kind of cancer you think I might have?
  • What will happen next?

How will the doctor know if I have lung cancer?

Symptoms of lung cancer are cough, chest pain, and trouble breathing. The doctor will ask you about your health and do a physical exam.

If signs point to lung cancer, more tests will be done. Here are some of the tests you may need:

Chest x-ray: This is often the first test  used to look for spots on your lungs. If the x-ray is normal, you most likely don't have lung cancer. If a change is seen, you will need more tests.

CT scan: This is also called a “CAT scan.” A CT scan is a special kind of x-ray that takes pictures of your insides. CT scans can also be used to do a biopsy (see below).

PET scan: A type of sugar is put in one of your veins for this test. Then, pictures of your insides are taken with a special camera. If there is cancer, the sugar shows up as “hot spots” where the cancer is found. This test is useful when your doctor thinks the cancer has spread, but doesn’t know where.

Biopsy (BY-op-see): For a biopsy, the doctor takes out a small piece of the lung tumor. It’s sent to the lab to see if there are cancer cells in it. This is the best way to know for sure if you have cancer.

Bronchoscopy (brong-KOS-kuh-pee): A thin, lighted, flexible tube is passed through your mouth into the bronchi. The doctor can look through the tube to find tumors. The tube also can be used to take out a piece of the tumor or fluid to see if there are cancer cells. You may be given drugs to make you sleep for this test.

Blood tests: Blood tests are not used to find lung cancer, but they are done to tell the doctor more about your health.

Questions to ask the doctor

  • What tests will I need to have?
  • Who will do these tests?
  • Where will they be done?
  • Who can explain them to me?
  • How and when will I get the results?
  • Who will explain the results to me?
  • What do I need to do next?

How serious is my cancer?

If you have lung cancer, the doctor will want to find out how far it has spread. This is called staging. Knowing the stage of the cancer helps your doctor decide what treatment is best for you.

For small cell lung cancer, a 2-stage system is most often used. This system divides small cell lung cancers into limited stage and extensive stage.

Limited stage means that the cancer is only in one lung and maybe in lymph nodes on the same side of the chest.

If the cancer has spread to the other lung, to lymph nodes on the other side of the chest, or to distant organs, it is called extensive stage. Many doctors also call cancer that has spread to the fluid around the lung extensive stage.

If your cancer is limited stage, you might get radiation or chemotherapy (chemo) treatments to try to cure the cancer. An extensive stage cancer will be treated, but is less likely to be cured. Be sure to ask your doctor about the stage of your cancer and what it might mean for you.

Questions to ask the doctor

  • Do you know the stage of the cancer?
  • If not, how and when will you find out the stage of the cancer?
  • Would you explain to me what the stage means in my case?
  • Based on the stage of the cancer, how long do you think I’ll live?
  • What will happen next?

What kind of treatment will I need?

There are many ways to treat small cell lung cancer, but the main types of treatment are radiation, and chemotherapy. In rare cases, surgery may be used. Many times, more than one kind of treatment is used.

The treatment plan that’s best for you will depend on:

  • The stage of the cancer
  • The chance that a type of treatment will cure the cancer or help in some way
  • Your age
  • Other health problems you have
  • Your feelings about the treatment and the side effects that may come with it

Radiation treatment

Radiation (RAY-dee-A-shun) uses high-energy rays (such as x-rays) to kill cancer cells. In limited stage small cell lung cancer it’s most often used along with chemo to treat the tumor and lymph nodes in the chest. Or it could be used on the brain to try to keep the cancer from spreading there. Radiation can also be used to relieve symptoms, such as pain, bleeding, trouble swallowing, or other problems. It’s given in small doses every day for many weeks.

Side effects of radiation treatments

If your doctor suggests radiation as your treatment, talk to him about what side effects might happen. The most common side effects of radiation are:

  • Skin changes where the radiation is given
  • Feeling very tired (fatigue [fuh-TEEG])

Most side effects get better after treatment ends. Some might last longer. Talk to your doctor about what you can expect.


Chemo (KEY-mo) is the short word for chemotherapy (KEY-mo-THER-uh-pee) – the use of drugs to fight cancer. Chemo is most often the main treatment for small cell lung cancer. The drugs may be given through a needle into a vein or taken as pills. These drugs go into the blood and spread through the body.

Chemo is given in cycles or rounds. There’s often a rest period as part of each cycle of treatment. This gives the body time to recover. Most of the time 2 chemo drugs are given. Treatment often lasts for many months.

Side effects of chemo

Chemo can make you feel very tired, feel sick to your stomach, and cause your hair to fall out. But these problems go away after treatment ends. 

There are ways to treat most chemo side effects. If you have any side effects, be sure to talk to your doctor or nurse so they can help.

Surgery for small cell lung cancer

In most cases, you will not have surgery (SUR-jur-ee) if you have small cell lung cancer. In a few cases, if the cancer is very small and has not spread, surgery might be done to take out all or part of your lung.

Sometimes, fluid collects in the chest and causes breathing problems. This fluid can be taken out by putting a small tube in the chest. After the fluid is drained out, a drug is put into the tube. This helps seal the space and keep fluid from building up again.

Side effects of surgery

Any type of surgery can have some risks and side effects. Be sure to ask the doctor what you can expect. If you have problems, let your doctors know. Doctors who treat people with lung cancer should be able to help you with any problems that come up.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials are research studies that test new drugs or other treatments in people. They compare standard treatments with others that may be better.

If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. See Clinical Trials to learn more.

Clinical trials are one way to the newest cancer treatment. They are the best way for doctors to find better ways to treat cancer. If your doctor can find one that’s studying the kind of cancer you have, it’s up to you whether to take part. And if you do sign up for a clinical trial, you can always stop at any time.

What about other treatments that I hear about?

When you have cancer you might hear about other ways to treat your cancer or treat your symptoms. These may not always be standard medical treatments. These treatments may be vitamins, herbs, diets, and other things. You may wonder about these treatments.

Some of these are known to help, but many have not been tested. Some have been shown not to be helpful. A few have even been found to be harmful. Talk to your doctor about anything you are thinking about using, whether it’s a vitamin, a diet, or anything else. 

Questions to ask the doctor

  • What treatment do you think is best for me?
  • What is the goal of this treatment? Do you think it could cure the cancer?
  • Will treatment include surgery? If so, what will the surgery be like?
  • Will I need other types of treatment, too?
  • What’s the goal of these treatments?
  • What side effects could I have from these treatments?
  • What can I do about side effects that I might have?
  • Is there a clinical trial that might be right for me?
  • What about vitamins or diets that friends tell me about? How will I know if they are safe?
  • How soon do I need to start treatment?
  • What should I do to be ready for treatment?
  • Is there anything I can do to help the treatment work better?
  • What’s the next step?


What will happen after treatment?

You’ll be glad when treatment is over. But it’s hard not to worry about cancer coming back. Even when cancer never comes back, people still worry about this.

For years after treatment ends, you will see your cancer doctor. Be sure to go to all of these follow-up visits. You will have exams, blood tests, and maybe other tests to tell if the cancer has come back.

For the first year after treatment, your visits may be every 2 to 3 months. You may have CT scans and blood tests. After the first year or so, your visits might be every 6 months, and then at least once a year after 5 years.

Having cancer and dealing with treatment can be hard, but it can also be a time to look at your life in new ways. You might be thinking about how to improve your health. Call the ACS at 1-800-227-2345 or talk to your cancer care team to find out what you can do to feel better. 

You can’t change the fact that you have cancer. What you can change is how you live the rest of your life – making healthy choices and feeling as well as you can.



Information provided by American Cancer Society.


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