Article: Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment

General Information About Small Cell Lung Cancer

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

The lungs are a pair of cone-shaped breathing organs that are found within the chest. The lungs bring oxygen into the body when breathing in and take out carbon dioxide when breathing out. Each lung has sections called lobes. The left lung has two lobes. The right lung, which is slightly larger, has three. A thin membrane called the pleura surrounds the lungs. Two tubes called bronchi lead from the trachea (windpipe) to the right and left lungs. The bronchi are sometimes also involved in lung cancer. Small tubes called bronchioles and tiny air sacs called alveoli make up the inside of the lungs.

There are two types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. This summary provides information on small cell lung cancer. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment for more information.)

There are three types of small cell lung cancer.

These three types include many different types of cells. The cancer cells of each type grow and spread in different ways. The types of small cell lung cancer are named for the kinds of cells found in the cancer and how the cells look when viewed under a microscope:

  • Small cell carcinoma (oat cell cancer).
  • Mixed small cell/large cell carcinoma.
  • Combined small cell carcinoma.

Smoking tobacco is the major risk factor for developing small cell lung cancer.

Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer. Risk factors for small cell lung cancer include:

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes now or in the past.
  • Being exposed to second hand smoke.
  • Being exposed to asbestos or radon.

Possible signs of small cell lung cancer include coughing, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

These and other symptoms may be caused by small cell lung cancer or by other conditions. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A cough that doesn't go away.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain that doesn't go away.
  • Wheezing.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Hoarseness.
  • Swelling of the face and neck.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Unusual tiredness.

Tests and procedures that examine the lungs are used to detect (find) and diagnose small cell lung cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Sputum cytology: A microscope is used to check for cancer cells in the sputum (mucus coughed up from the lungs).
  • Laboratory tests: Medical procedures that test samples of tissue, blood, urine, or other substances in the body. These tests help to diagnose disease, plan and check treatment, or monitor the disease over time.
  • Bronchoscopy: A procedure to look inside the trachea and large airways in the lung for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea and lungs. Tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.
  • Fine needle aspiration biopsy: The removal of part of a lump, suspicious tissue, or fluid, using a thin needle. A pathologist views the tissue or fluid under a microscope to look for cancer cells. This procedure is also called a needle biopsy.
  • Thoracentesis: Removal of fluid from the pleural cavity (the space between the lungs and chest wall) through a needle inserted between the ribs.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether it is in the chest cavity only or has spread to other places in the body).
  • The patient's gender and general health.
  • The blood level of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), a substance found in the blood that may indicate cancer when the level is higher than normal.

For most patients with small cell lung cancer, current treatments do not cure the cancer.

If lung cancer is found, participation in one of the many clinical trials being done to improve treatment should be considered. Clinical trials are taking place in most parts of the country for patients with all stages of small cell lung cancer. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from NCI Cancer.gov Web site

Stages of Small Cell Lung Cancer

After small cell lung cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the chest or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the chest or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Bone marrow biopsy: The removal of a small piece of bone and bone marrow by inserting a needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views both the bone and the bone marrow samples under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
  • CT scan (CAT scan) of brain, chest, and abdomen: A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Radionuclide bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radionuclide glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells.

The following stages are used for small cell lung cancer:

Limited-Stage Small Cell Lung Cancer

In limited-stage, cancer is found in one lung, the tissues between the lungs, and nearby lymph nodes only.

Extensive-Stage Small Cell Lung Cancer

In extensive-stage, cancer has spread outside of the lung in which it began or to other parts of the body.

Recurrent Small Cell Lung Cancer

Recurrent small cell lung cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the chest, central nervous system, or in other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with small cell lung cancer.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with small cell lung cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. Before starting treatment, patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from NCI Cancer.gov Web site. Choosing the most appropriate cancer treatment is a decision that ideally involves the patient, family, and health care team.

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery may be used if the cancer is found in one lung and in nearby lymph nodes only. Because this type of lung cancer is usually found in both lungs, surgery alone is not often used. Occasionally, surgery may be used to help determine the patient's exact type of lung cancer. During surgery, the doctor will also remove lymph nodes to see if they contain cancer. Laser therapy (the use of an intensely powerful beam of light to kill cancer cells) may be used.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the operation, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to increase the chances of a cure, is called adjuvant therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. Prophylactic cranial irradiation (radiation therapy to the brain to reduce the risk that cancer will spread to the brain) may also be given. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Other types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Treatment Options by Stage

Limited-Stage Small Cell Lung Cancer

Treatment of limited-stage small cell lung cancer may include the following:

  • Combination chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the chest, with or without radiation therapy to the brain.
  • Combination chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy to the brain in patients with complete response.
  • Combination chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy to the chest.
  • Surgery followed by chemotherapy or chemotherapy plus radiation therapy to the chest, with or without radiation therapy to the brain.
  • Clinical trials of new chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation treatments.

This summary refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Extensive-Stage Small Cell Lung Cancer

Treatment of extensive-stage small cell lung cancer may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy.
  • Combination chemotherapy.
  • Combination chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy to the brain for patients with complete response.
  • Radiation therapy to the brain, spine, bone, or other parts of the body where the cancer has spread, as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
  • Clinical trials of new chemotherapy treatments.

This summary refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Treatment Options for Recurrent Small Cell Lung Cancer

Treatment of recurrent small cell lung cancer may include the following:

  • Radiation therapy as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
  • Chemotherapy as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
  • Laser therapy, surgical placement of devices to keep the airways open, and/or internal radiation therapy, as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
  • Clinical trials of chemotherapy.

This summary refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Changes to This Summary (08/19/2004)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

To Learn More

Call

For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Deaf and hard-of-hearing callers with TTY equipment may call 1-800-332-8615. The call is free and a trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.

Web sites and Organizations

The NCI's Cancer.gov Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. There are also many other places where people can get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Local hospitals may have information on local and regional agencies that offer information about finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems associated with cancer treatment.

Publications

The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

LiveHelp

The NCI's LiveHelp service, a program available on several of the Institute's Web sites, provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.

Write

For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:

NCI Public Inquiries Office
Suite 3036A
6116 Executive Boulevard, MSC8322
Bethesda, MD 20892-8322

About PDQ

PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on Cancer.gov.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at Cancer.gov, the NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ contains cancer information summaries.

The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

Before starting treatment, patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about new treatments, the risks involved, and how well they do or do not work. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard."

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at Cancer.gov. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.


Source: National Cancer Institute
Cache Date: December 10, 2004

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