Small Cell Lung Cancer

What is Small Cell Lung Cancer?

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC), also called oat cell lung cancer, makes up about 10 to 15 percent of all lung cancers. This aggressive, fast-growing lung cancer spreads much more quickly than non-small cell lung cancer. It typically starts in cells in the breathing tubes (bronchi), and small cancer cells grow quickly to form large tumors.

Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care for patients with cancer and the diagnosis, treatment and management of small cell lung cancer. You will appreciate timely appointments and a professional, friendly atmosphere where we take time to listen to your concerns. At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. Plus, we offer Lung CT screening, the most thorough diagnostic tool available today. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.

Signs and Symptoms

Small cell lung cancer symptoms may include:

  • Bloody phlegm
  • Chest pain worsened by deep breathing
  • Cough
  • Facial or neck swelling
  • Fever
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swallowing difficulties
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Wheezing


To determine if someone has small cell lung cancer, we ask about medical history and do a physical exam. We also use advanced diagnostic procedures and technology to effectively diagnose, inform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. Diagnostic procedures can include:

Biopsy: The physician may remove a sample of abnormal cells during a bronchoscopy, during which a lighted tube is passed down the throat and into the lungs, or by inserting a needle through the chest wall and into the lungs. Lymph nodes can also be biopsied.

Blood tests:  Using these tests, the physician can check for anemia, liver and kidney function problems, or higher-than- normal levels of certain electrolytes and enzymes.

Chest X-ray: This imaging test is used to help spot abnormalities or diseases of the airways and lungs.

Computed tomography (CT) scan:  A series of detailed pictures of the lungs, taken from different angles, are created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET): These imaging tests are used to assess the spread of disease in the body.

Sputum cytology: Mucus coughed up from the lungs can be examined under a microscope to look for cancer cells.


Small cell lung cancer is typically linked to cigarette smoking. Exposure to radon, a radioactive gas that comes from the natural breakdown of rocks that contain uranium, may also be a cause of small cell lung cancer.

Risk Factors

Risk factors that can contribute to small cell lung cancer include:

Exposure to air pollution: Continuous exposure to pollutants can increase the risk of developing cancer.

Exposure to secondhand smoke: If someone smokes in the home, a person has a greater risk of SCLC.

Occupational exposure: People exposed to radon, uranium, asbestos, diesel exhaust and certain chemicals may be at an increased risk of SCLC.


The best way to prevent small cell lung cancer is to avoid smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke.


Early diagnosis may allow cancer to be found before it has advanced, when it is harder to cure. SCLC is often life-threatening, but treatments may prolong life and alleviate symptoms, even when cancer has spread.

Treatment and Recovery

Because SCLC spreads quickly throughout the body, treatment usually includes:


This treatment uses special drugs, injected into the bloodstream, to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given along with radiation therapy for those with limited-stage small cell lung cancer.

Radiation Therapy

This treatment uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. The radiation beams are focused on the location of the body where the cancer is. Most often, radiation treatments are given daily and may continue for several weeks.


Surgery is not commonly used to treat small cell lung cancer. But, if there is a single tumor with no sign of spread, surgery may be an option.


Small cell lung cancer itself and some of its treatments can result in complications. These include:

Shortness of breath: Fluid can accumulate in the chest cavity, causing shortness of breath.

Pain: Small cell lung cancer may cause pain if it spreads to the lining of a lung or into a bone.

Paraneoplastic syndromes: These are rare disorders caused by the secretion of hormones or other substances from the cancer. The most common paraneoplastic syndrome associated with small cell lung cancer involves the syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone (SIADH) in which excess water is retained by the kidneys, causing a decreased sodium level in the body’s cells. People may develop problems like fatigue, muscle weakness, memory loss, alterations in consciousness and seizures.

Rapid spread: SCLC tends to spread (metastasize) quickly to other parts of the body, including the bones, liver and brain.

Next Steps with MyChart

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