Small Cell Lung Cancer

SCLC - Survival Rates

Small cell lung cancer accounts for about 20% of all lung cancers and is the most aggressive type of the disease with a very poor prognosis.

In nearly 100% of cases it’s preventable because it’s usually caused by smoking (it’s extremely very rare for someone who has never smoked to have the disease).

This form of the disease is named after the small round cells which make up the lung cancer. It’s sometimes called “oat cell carcinoma” because the majority of cells resemble oat flakes when looked at under a microscope. Another name for it is “small cell undifferentiated carcinoma.”

Symptoms of SCLC usually include a persistent cough, breathlessness, chest pain, weight loss and production of phlegm. There can also be rather vague symptoms such as weight loss and general tiredness.

Sometimes the disease is only discovered when a symptom producing cancer is found in another part of the body. This cancer would usually be as a result of the Small Cell Lung Cancer spreading.

How Small cell Lung Cancer Develops

The disease starts mainly in the bronchi (air passages) at the centre of the lungs but it can appear anywhere within the organ. Unfortunately by the time any symptoms appear, the disease has gone on the attack in the rest of the body. This makes it far more difficult to treat because not only does the lung cancer itself have to be treated but drugs are also needed to treat other areas of the body and to prevent the further spread of the cancer.

SCLC spreads very quickly through the body because the cancer cells can multiply rapidly to form large tumors. It penetrates the lymph nodes and uses them as a means of transport to attack other parts of the body such as the brain, bones, liver and adrenal glands.

Unlike non small cell lung cancer, small cell lung cancer is not staged – probably because it becomes so aggressive so quickly. It’s either termed as “limited” which usually means that it only affects one lung and lymph nodes on the same side of the body, or “extensive” meaning it has invaded the rest of the lungs and probably other parts of the body.

The survival rate of Small Cell Lung Cancer

The outlook is very poor. Surgery is rarely an option because by the time the cancer is discovered it has usually spread. The main form of treatment is chemotherapy and sometimes radiotherapy both of which are aimed at relieving symptoms rather than providing a cure. Chemotherapy has been quite successful in improving the quality of life in people with SCLC.

Those with “limited” SCLC who are treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy usually have a two year survival rate of around 30%. The five-year survival rate is about 15%. If the SCLC is “extensive” a person can usually expect to survive on average about ten months.


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