Usually lacking early-stage symptoms, small cell lung cancer, also known as oat cell cancer, often develops the most aggressive lung tumors. About 10 to 15 percent of lung cancers are small cell lung cancer, and tobacco smoking is the leading cause of the disease. While the cells are small, they grow very quickly and create large tumors.
People who smoke can decrease their risk of lung cancer by quitting, say experts at the National Cancer Institute.
Additional Risk Factors
In atypical cases, small cell lung cancer can be caused by exposure to radon, secondhand smoke, air pollution, asbestos, diesel exhaust and radiation therapy to the chest to treat other cancers. Age is an uncontrollable risk factor for lung cancer. About two out of three people diagnosed with the disease are 65 or older.
Stages of the Disease
For treatment purposes, small cell lung cancer is divided into two stages: Limited stage and extensive stage.
Detecting the Cancer
Small cell lung cancer is difficult to detect early because it typically does not cause symptoms until it is at an advanced stage. Symptoms usually are related to the spread of the disease. For example, seizures may indicate the cancer has metastasized to the brain, and bone pain may occur if it has spread to the bones.
Sometimes, paraneoplastic syndromes may be the first symptoms of lung cancer. These symptoms occur when a hormone-like substance emitted from the lung cancer enters the bloodstream and causes problems with distant tissues and organs, even though the cancer has not spread to those areas.
Patients with a smoking history should talk to their doctor about getting screened for lung cancer. Baptist Health offers a Lung Screening Program  to patients at high risk for developing the disease. The low-dose CT screening may detect lung cancer in its early stages – before there are any symptoms – when survival rates are best.
Although small cell lung cancer is an aggressive disease, it responds well to initial chemotherapy and radiation in its limited stage. Patients with extensive-stage small cell lung cancer also can be treated with chemotherapy. The goals of treatment are to relieve symptoms, maintain quality of life and prolong patient survival with chemotherapy.
Patients diagnosed with small cell lung cancer will discuss their cancer stage and treatment options with a care team comprised of a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, pulmonologist and palliative care physician. Other oncology specialists involved in the plan of care include physician assistants, nurse practitioners and nurses, respiratory therapists, nutrition specialists and social workers.
Outlook: Clinical Trials Offer Hope
Small cell lung cancer is a recalcitrant cancer – a cancer with a low five-year survival rate. The Recalcitrant Cancer Act, passed by Congress in 2012, acknowledges that more dedicated resources need to be allocated to find a cure for small cell lung cancer.