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Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (Patient)


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.
Respiratory anatomy; drawing shows right lung with upper, middle, and lower lobes; left lung with upper and lower lobes; and the trachea, bronchi, lymph nodes, and diaphragm. Inset shows bronchioles, alveoli, artery, and vein.
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).

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. (See the PDQ summary on Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment for more information.)

There are two types of small cell lung cancer.

These two 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).
  • Combined small cell carcinoma.

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

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. 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 secondhand 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. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. 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.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Unusual tiredness.

Tests and procedures that examine the lungs are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage 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.
    Chest x-ray; drawing shows the patient standing with her back to the x-ray machine. X-rays are used to take pictures of organs and bones of the chest. X-rays pass through the patient onto film.
    X-ray of the chest. X-rays are used to take pictures of organs and bones of the chest. X-rays pass through the patient onto film.
  • 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.
  • CT scan (CAT scan) of the 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.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignanttumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactiveglucose (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 do.
    PET (positron emission tomography) scan; drawing shows patient lying on table that slides through the PET machine.
    PET (positron emission tomography) scan. The patient lies on a table that slides through the PET machine. The head rest and white strap help the patient lie still. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into the patient's vein, and a scanner makes a picture of where the glucose is being used in the body. Cancer cells show up brighter in the picture because they take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • Sputumcytology: A microscope is used to check for cancer cells in the sputum (mucus coughed up from the lungs).
  • Bronchoscopy: A procedure to look inside the trachea and large airways in the lung for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope is inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea and lungs. A bronchoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
    Bronchoscopy; drawing shows a bronchoscope inserted through the mouth, trachea, and bronchus into the lung; lymph nodes along trachea and bronchi; and cancer in one lung. Inset shows patient lying on a table having a bronchoscopy.
    Bronchoscopy. A bronchoscope is inserted through the mouth, trachea, and major bronchi into the lung, to look for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a cutting tool. Tissue samples may be taken to be checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy of the lung: The removal of tissue or fluid from the lung using a thin needle. A CT scan, ultrasound, or other imaging procedure is used to locate the abnormal tissue or fluid in the lung. A small incision may be made in the skin where the biopsy needle is inserted into the abnormal tissue or fluid. A sample is removed with the needle and sent to the laboratory. A pathologist then views the sample under a microscope to look for cancer cells. A chest x-ray is done after the procedure to make sure no air is leaking from the lung into the chest.
    Lung biopsy; drawing shows a patient lying on a table that slides through the computed tomography (CT) machine with an x-ray picture of a cross-section of the lung on a monitor above the patient. Drawing also shows a doctor using the x-ray picture to help place the biopsy needle through the chest wall and into the area of abnormal lung tissue. Inset shows a side view of the chest cavity and lungs with the biopsy needle inserted into the area of abnormal tissue.
    Lung biopsy. The patient lies on a table that slides through the computed tomography (CT) machine which takes x-ray pictures of the inside of the body. The x-ray pictures help the doctor see where the abnormal tissue is in the lung. A biopsy needle is inserted through the chest wall and into the area of abnormal lung tissue. A small piece of tissue is removed through the needle and checked under the microscope for signs of cancer.
  • Thoracoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the chest to check for abnormal areas. An incision (cut) is made between two ribs, and a thoracoscope is inserted into the chest. A thoracoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. In some cases, this procedure is used to remove part of the esophagus or lung. If certain tissues, organs, or lymph nodes can't be reached, a thoracotomy may be done. In this procedure, a larger incision is made between the ribs and the chest is opened.
  • Thoracentesis: The removal of fluid from the space between the lining of the chest and the lung, using a needle. A pathologist views the fluid under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

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 Web site

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eMedicineHealth Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

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