Font Size

Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (Professional) (cont.)

Recurrent Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment

Standard Treatment Options for Patients With Recurrent Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC)

Standard treatment options for patients with recurrent SCLC include the following:

  1. Chemotherapy.
  2. Palliative therapy.

At the time of recurrence, many SCLC patients are potential candidates for further therapy.


Although second-line chemotherapy has been shown to produce tumor regression, responses are usually short lived; the median survival is rarely more than 12 months and usually less than 6 months after second-line therapy.[1] Response to first-line chemotherapy predicts for subsequent response to second-line therapy.

As in other chemosensitive tumors (e.g., Hodgkin lymphoma and ovarian epithelial cancer), two main categories of patients receiving second-line chemotherapy have been described: sensitive and resistant. Sensitive patients have a first-line response that lasted more than 90 days after treatment was completed. These patients have the greatest benefit from second-line chemotherapy. Patients with sensitive disease respond to the same initial regimen in approximately 50% of cases; however, cumulative toxic effects may ensue.[2] Resistant patients either did not respond to first-line chemotherapy or responded initially but relapsed within 90 days of completion of their primary therapy.[3] Results from phase II studies of drugs such as topotecan, irinotecan, and gemcitabine indicate that response rates to agents vary depending on whether patients have sensitive, resistant, or refractory disease.[4,5,6,7,8][Level of evidence: 3iiiDii]

Topotecan is standard chemotherapy for recurrent SCLC. Patients with sensitive disease may achieve response to a number of agents including topotecan, irinotecan, taxanes, vinorelbine, paclitaxel, or gemcitabine.[4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11][Level of evidence: 3iiiDii] Response rates to combination agents are generally higher than those reported for single agents;[12,13] however, many studies do not report the patients with sensitive, resistant, or refractory disease.

Evidence (topotecan):

  1. A randomized comparison of second-line treatment with either cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, and vincristine (CAV) or topotecan in patients with sensitive disease reported no significant difference in response rates or survival, but palliation of common lung cancer symptoms was better with topotecan.[14][Level of evidence: 1iiC]
  2. A phase III trial comparing chemotherapy with best supportive care (BSC) in relapsed SCLC patients demonstrated that the addition of oral topotecan to BSC significantly increased overall survival and resulted in better symptom control compared with BSC alone.[15][Level of evidence: 1iiA] The study enrolled 141 patients with chemosensitive or chemoresistant relapsed SCLC who were unsuitable for further standard intravenous chemotherapy. The median survival times for patients receiving topotecan plus BSC were 25.9 weeks versus 13.9 weeks for BSC alone (P = .01).[15]
  3. A randomized, phase III trial (CWRU-SKF-1598) of 304 patients assessed the use of oral topotecan (2.3 mg/m2 /day for 5 days every 21 days) or intravenous topotecan (1.5 mg/m2 /day for 5 days every 21 days). Confirmed response rates were 18.3% and 21.9%, respectively.[9][Level of evidence: 1iiDii] Secondary endpoints of median survival and 1-year survival rates were also similar (33 weeks vs. 35 weeks and 33% vs. 29%, respectively). Patients receiving oral topotecan experienced less grade 4 neutropenia (47% vs. 64.2%) but more diarrhea of all grades (35.9% vs. 19.9%) than with intravenous topotecan. Quality-of-life (QOL) analysis (using a nonvalidated QOL questionnaire) demonstrated no significant difference between the two arms.

Palliative therapy

Patients with central nervous system (CNS) recurrences can often obtain palliation of symptoms with additional chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. A retrospective review showed that 43% of patients treated with additional chemotherapy at the time of CNS relapse responded to second-line chemotherapy.[16] The majority of patients treated with radiation therapy obtain objective responses and improvement following radiation therapy.[17]

Some patients with intrinsic endobronchial obstructing lesions or extrinsic compression caused by the tumor have achieved successful palliation with endobronchial laser therapy (for endobronchial lesions only) and/or brachytherapy.[18] Expandable metal stents can be safely inserted under local anesthesia via the bronchoscope, which results in improved symptoms and pulmonary function in patients with malignant airways obstruction.[19]

Patients with progressive intrathoracic tumor after failing initial chemotherapy can achieve significant tumor responses, palliation of symptoms, and short-term local control with external-beam radiation therapy. Only the rare patient, however, will experience long-term survival following salvage radiation therapy.[20]

Treatment Options Under Clinical Evaluation

Treatment options under clinical evaluation for patients with recurrent SCLC include phase I and II clinical trials of new drugs.

Current Clinical Trials

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent small cell lung cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.


  1. Davies AM, Evans WK, Mackay JA, et al.: Treatment of recurrent small cell lung cancer. Hematol Oncol Clin North Am 18 (2): 387-416, 2004.
  2. Postmus PE, Berendsen HH, van Zandwijk N, et al.: Retreatment with the induction regimen in small cell lung cancer relapsing after an initial response to short term chemotherapy. Eur J Cancer Clin Oncol 23 (9): 1409-11, 1987.
  3. Giaccone G, Donadio M, Bonardi G, et al.: Teniposide in the treatment of small-cell lung cancer: the influence of prior chemotherapy. J Clin Oncol 6 (8): 1264-70, 1988.
  4. Sandler AB: Irinotecan in small-cell lung cancer: the US experience. Oncology (Williston Park) 15 (1 Suppl 1): 11-2, 2001.
  5. van der Lee I, Smit EF, van Putten JW, et al.: Single-agent gemcitabine in patients with resistant small-cell lung cancer. Ann Oncol 12 (4): 557-61, 2001.
  6. Masuda N, Fukuoka M, Kusunoki Y, et al.: CPT-11: a new derivative of camptothecin for the treatment of refractory or relapsed small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol 10 (8): 1225-9, 1992.
  7. Perez-Soler R, Glisson BS, Lee JS, et al.: Treatment of patients with small-cell lung cancer refractory to etoposide and cisplatin with the topoisomerase I poison topotecan. J Clin Oncol 14 (10): 2785-90, 1996.
  8. Masters GA, Declerck L, Blanke C, et al.: Phase II trial of gemcitabine in refractory or relapsed small-cell lung cancer: Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group Trial 1597. J Clin Oncol 21 (8): 1550-5, 2003.
  9. Eckardt JR, von Pawel J, Pujol JL, et al.: Phase III study of oral compared with intravenous topotecan as second-line therapy in small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol 25 (15): 2086-92, 2007.
  10. Ardizzoni A, Hansen H, Dombernowsky P, et al.: Topotecan, a new active drug in the second-line treatment of small-cell lung cancer: a phase II study in patients with refractory and sensitive disease. The European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Early Clinical Studies Group and New Drug Development Office, and the Lung Cancer Cooperative Group. J Clin Oncol 15 (5): 2090-6, 1997.
  11. Furuse K, Kubota K, Kawahara M, et al.: Phase II study of vinorelbine in heavily previously treated small cell lung cancer. Japan Lung Cancer Vinorelbine Study Group. Oncology 53 (2): 169-72, 1996 Mar-Apr.
  12. Smit EF, Fokkema E, Biesma B, et al.: A phase II study of paclitaxel in heavily pretreated patients with small-cell lung cancer. Br J Cancer 77 (2): 347-51, 1998.
  13. Rocha-Lima CM, Herndon JE 2nd, Lee ME, et al.: Phase II trial of irinotecan/gemcitabine as second-line therapy for relapsed and refractory small-cell lung cancer: Cancer and Leukemia Group B Study 39902. Ann Oncol 18 (2): 331-7, 2007.
  14. von Pawel J, Schiller JH, Shepherd FA, et al.: Topotecan versus cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, and vincristine for the treatment of recurrent small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol 17 (2): 658-67, 1999.
  15. O'Brien ME, Ciuleanu TE, Tsekov H, et al.: Phase III trial comparing supportive care alone with supportive care with oral topotecan in patients with relapsed small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol 24 (34): 5441-7, 2006.
  16. Kristensen CA, Kristjansen PE, Hansen HH: Systemic chemotherapy of brain metastases from small-cell lung cancer: a review. J Clin Oncol 10 (9): 1498-502, 1992.
  17. Carmichael J, Crane JM, Bunn PA, et al.: Results of therapeutic cranial irradiation in small cell lung cancer. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 14 (3): 455-9, 1988.
  18. Miller JI Jr, Phillips TW: Neodymium:YAG laser and brachytherapy in the management of inoperable bronchogenic carcinoma. Ann Thorac Surg 50 (2): 190-5; discussion 195-6, 1990.
  19. Wilson GE, Walshaw MJ, Hind CR: Treatment of large airway obstruction in lung cancer using expandable metal stents inserted under direct vision via the fibreoptic bronchoscope. Thorax 51 (3): 248-52, 1996.
  20. Ochs JJ, Tester WJ, Cohen MH, et al.: "Salvage" radiation therapy for intrathoracic small cell carcinoma of the lung progressing on combination chemotherapy. Cancer Treat Rep 67 (12): 1123-6, 1983.
eMedicineHealth Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at or call 1-800-4-CANCER

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

Some material in CancerNet™ is from copyrighted publications of the respective copyright claimants. Users of CancerNet™ are referred to the publication data appearing in the bibliographic citations, as well as to the copyright notices appearing in the original publication, all of which are hereby incorporated by reference.

Medical Dictionary