Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)
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Clinical oncologist, Neil Bayman, explains what lung cancer is, the main types, risk factors, stages and common treatments available to you.
There are two main types of primary lung cancer:
- non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
- 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%).
Smoking tobacco is the cause of most lung cancers and the biggest risk factor. This includes smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes. 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 gets lower 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 risk factors of lung cancer.
People may be diagnosed with small cell lung cancer after seeing their GP about their symptoms. If your GP thinks your symptoms could be caused by lung cancer, they will arrange tests to help make a diagnosis. These can include:
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. These may include:
During a biopsy, a doctor or nurse takes samples of cells or tissue from the abnormal area. They look at the biopsy samples under a microscope to check for cancer cells. You usually have a biopsy to find out for certain if you have lung cancer. 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, your specialist will arrange further tests. Some of these help with the staging of lung cancer.
You may have the following tests:
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 lung cancer 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 SCLC including:
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 is rarely used to treat small cell lung cancer (SCLC) unless the cancer is small and has not spread outside the lung.
Tumour ablation treatments
Follow-up after treatment
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.
Everyone has their own way of dealing with illness and the different emotions they experience. You may find it helpful to talk things over with family and friends or your doctor or nurse.
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.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our lung cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Lung cancer – Diagnosis and management. Clinical guideline 2019.
Metastatic non-small cell lung cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. 2018.
European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO). Early and locally advanced non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC): ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. 2017.
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr David Gilligan, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.
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We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:
- use plain English
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