What is small cell lung cancer?

Cancer that starts in the lung is called primary lung cancer. There are two main types of primary lung cancer - non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) gets its name from how the cancer looks under a microscope. It makes up about 1 in 7 lung cancers (about 15%).

Symptoms of small cell lung cancer

If you are worried about small cell lung cancer (SCLC), we have more information about the signs and symptoms. If you have any symptoms or notice anything that is unusual for you to see your GP straight away.

Causes of small cell lung cancer

Smoking cigarettes is the main cause of lung cancer. People who do not smoke can still develop lung cancer, but their risk is much lower. If someone stops smoking, their risk of developing lung cancer falls over time. After about 15 years it is almost the same as a non-smoker. Lung cancer is also more common in older people.

We have more information about the causes and risk factors of lung cancer.

Diagnosis of small cell lung cancer

People who have symptoms of small cell lung cancer (SCLC) usually begin by seeing their GP. If the GP thinks your symptoms could be caused by lung cancer, they will arrange either:

If these tests show anything abnormal, your GP will refer you to a chest specialist within 2 weeks. Sometimes they will do this before getting the result of the chest x-ray.

At the hospital, the specialist will explain any other tests you need.

Other tests you may have at the hospital include:

PET-CT scan

A PET-CT scan is a combination of a CT scan, which takes a series of x-rays to build up a three-dimensional picture and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.


The doctor or nurse collects samples (biopsies) of cells or tissue from the lung or nearby lymph nodes. The samples are checked under a microscope for cancer cells. This test can help diagnose lung cancer and show whether it is small cell lung cancer (SCLC) or non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). There are different ways of collecting biopsies, including:

Waiting for tests results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.

Further tests after diagnosis

If tests show you have small cell lung cancer (SCLC), your specialist will arrange further tests. These can help find out more about your general health and the stage of the cancer:

  • Mediastinoscopy

    A mediastinoscopy is when the doctor inserts a long, thin tube into your chest through a small cut at the base of your neck. You have this under a general anaesthetic. They examine the middle of the chest and lymph nodes and take samples of tissue (biopsies).

  • Thoracoscopy

    A thoracoscopy is when the doctor inserts a thin tube through cuts in your chest and take a biopsy of the lining of the lungs (the pleura). This is usually done under a general anaesthetic. The doctor can remove any fluid that may have collected there.

  • MRI scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • Ultrasound scan

    An ultrasound scan uses sound-waves to look at parts of the body, such as the liver, to see if the cancer has spread.

  • Breathing and heart tests

    Breathing and heart tests are used to check how well your lungs and heart are working. You may have this if your treatment plan involves surgery or radiotherapy.

Stages of small cell lung cancer

The stage of a cancer describes its size and if it has spread. The stage will be based on your test results. You and your doctors can then talk about the best treatment choices for you.

We have more information about lung cancer stages.

Treatment for small cell lung cancer

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your doctor will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about the things you should consider when making treatment decisions.

You can read an overview of the different treatment options for SCLC.

You may have a combination of treatments for small cell lung cancer (SCLC) including:

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy is the main treatment for small cell lung cancer. (SCLC) When it is given before or with radiotherapy this is called chemoradiation.

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy may be given before, during or after chemotherapy to treat small cell lung cancer (SCLC). It may be used to control symptoms if the cancer is more advanced or has spread. It may also be given to the head to stop any lung cancer cells that have spread growing into a secondary cancer in the brain. This is called prophylactic cranial radiotherapy.

  • Surgery

    Surgery is rarely used to treat small cell lung cancer (SCLC) unless the cancer is small and has not spread outside the lung.

  • Ablation treatments

    Ablation treatments use heat or laser light to treat very early lung cancers. Ablation treatment can also be used if the cancer is blocking an airway.

  • Supportive treatment

    You can have treatments to help relieve any symptoms caused by the cancer. This is sometimes called supportive care or palliative care.

After small cell lung cancer treatment

Follow-up after treatment for small cell lung cancer

You have regular follow up appointments after treatment.

You may get anxious before the appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.

Reviewed: 28 September 2018
Reviewed: 28/09/2018
Next review: 30 September 2021
Next review: 30/09/2021