About Small Cell Lung Cancer


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Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the tissues of the lung.

Signs & Symptoms

These are signs of small cell lung cancer:

  • Pain or discomfort in the chest
  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse over time
  • Difficult breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Blood in mucus coughed up from the lungs
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficult swallowing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abnormal weight loss for no known reason
  • Feeling unusually tired
  • Swelling in the face and/or veins in the neck

Many other health problems can also cause these signs. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about small cell lung cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

Image of the Respiratory System

anatomical drawing of the respiratory system

Anatomy of the respiratory system, showing the trachea and both lungs and their lobes and airways. Lymph nodes and the diaphragm are also shown. Oxygen is inhaled into the lungs and passes through the thin membranes of the alveoli and into the bloodstream (see inset).

Specialties & Treatments

The treatment or combination of treatments each patient has depends on the stage of the small cell lung cancer, recommendations of the care team, and the patient’s wishes. These are the most common types of treatment: 

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Lung Cancers Program provides comprehensive, compassionate, state-of-the-art care for people with small cell lung cancers.

Learn more about types of cancer treatments.

Find a Small Cell Lung Cancer Doctor

Causes & Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean you are sure to get cancer. It means your chances are higher than the average person’s. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cancer risk.

The chance of getting small cell lung cancer increases with age. These are other risk factors of small cell lung cancer:

  • Smoking tobacco
  • A personal history of small cell lung cancer or other small cell lung disease
  • A family history of small cell lung cancer
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to radiation from the environment
  • Radiation therapy to the breast or chest, or imaging tests such as CT scans
  • Radon in the home or workplace
  • Exposure to air pollution
  • Being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Learn more about ways to prevent cancer and about cancer screenings.

Diagnosis & Stages

Diagnoisis of Small Cell Lung Cancer

Screening looks for cancer before you have symptoms. Lung cancer screening can check for anything unusual if you have a history of smoking tobacco. Screening can rule out an issue or help find cancer at an early stage, when it may be easier to treat.

Doctors use these tests to screen for and diagnose small cell lung cancer:

  • Physical exam and history: A health care provider examines your body for signs of disease. Your personal health habits, past illnesses, and symptoms help guide the exam.
  • Laboratory tests: By testing body tissues, blood, urine or other substances in the body, your health care team can check to see how the lungs and other organs are functioning. They can also look for substances that cells produce when cancer is present.
  • Imaging tests (including chest x-rays): Using dyes, x-rays, magnets, radio waves, and/or computer technology, your health care provider can create detailed images of internal organs. Your health care provider may inject or have you swallow a dye to help see the images.
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes cell or tissue samples so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Stages of Small Cell Lung Cancer

Cancer stages show whether cancer has spread within or around the lungs or to other parts of the body. Cancer spreads in the body in three ways: through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood.

There are two stages for small cell lung cancer.

  • Limited Stage: Cancer is in the lung where it began and may have spread between the lungs, or to the lymph nodes above the collarbone.
  • Extensive-Stage: Cancer has spread beyond the lung, the area between the lungs, or the lymph nodes above the collarbone to other places in the body.

When cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. These metastatic cancer cells are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if small cell lung cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually small cell lung cancer cells. The disease is metastatic small cell lung cancer, not bone cancer.

Learn more about small cell lung cancer staging from the National Cancer Institute.