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In this video, radiation oncologist S. Jack Wei, MD, discusses lung cancer risk factors, screening methods, treatment and more.

Small cell lung cancer

Small cell lung cancer accounts for about 10 to 15% of all lung cancers. It is often referred to as oat cell cancer, oat cell carcinoma and small cell undifferentiated carcinoma. SCLC is rarely found in non-smokers and is generally a fast-spreading cancer.

Treatment for small cell lung cancer is different from treatment for non-small cell lung cancer and is usually dependent on the stage of cancer, described below1.

Stages of small cell lung cancer

Most doctors describe the stages of small cell lung cancer with two stages2.

  • Limited stage: Cancer is found only on one side of the chest.
  • Extensive stage: Cancer is found in the lung and also in tissues on the other side of the chest. Or, lung cancer is found in distant organs, such as the brain, or in fluid between the two layers of pleura.

Treatment options for small cell lung cancer


Surgery is usually only an option for very early stages of small cell lung cancer, if there is just one tumor that has not spread elsewhere, and for people in otherwise good health. It is generally followed by chemotherapy and possibly radiation treatment as well. Surgery is not usually an option for treatment when the SCLC is in limited or extensive stages.

Treatment in limited stage

In most cases of limited stage SCLC, surgery is not a viable option because the tumor is too large or has spread to other places in the body or lymph nodes. In these cases, the standard treatment is chemotherapy either alone or in combination with radiation therapy to target the tumor. Combination therapy is usually best at preventing the spread of the the lung cancer, but is a difficult treatment to undergo physically.

Treatment in extensive stage

In the extensive stage of SCLC, chemotherapy is a good option to help shrink the tumor. Unfortunately, tumors commonly return in this stage. Radiation therapy to the brain may also be used to prevent future problems. Laser surgery is another option that can help control tumors in specific parts of the body.

If chemo and radiation are too difficult, or are no longer working to control the cancer, supportive care may be a good option for managing symptoms and pain. Community offers the symptom management group for such cases.

Clinical trials

There are many clinical trials underway to find new and more effective drugs and methods to treat small cell lung cancer. Ask your doctor if you might be a suitable candidate for a clinical trial and how to apply.


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