“When the oncologist gave me the results of my biopsy, we didn’t think anything negative of the term when he said ‘It’s really a funny name, what you have. It used to be called oat cell cancer, because when you look at it under a microscope, it looks like oats,’” said Montessa, a special education teacher who has lived with small cell lung cancer (SCLC) since 2006. “My cousin and I started laughing and said, ‘That is a really stupid name,’ until I got home and started my own research to understand the significance of the word, small cell lung cancer.”
While many people are familiar with lung cancer, not as many are aware of the unique differences that characterize the two types of this disease: non-small cell and small cell.
Compared to non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), SCLC is less common.1 Approximately 13% of lung cancers are classified as small cell. Approximately 30,000 to 35,000 new cases are reported every year.2,3
If you or someone you are caring for has recently been diagnosed with SCLC, you likely have questions about what to expect in terms of treatment options and how your diagnosis may impact your everyday life. The following overview of SCLC can be a helpful starting point for having more in-depth conversations with your healthcare provider or care team.
Jody, who cared for her sister Kim during the entire length of her five-year fight with SCLC, said that it’s the support that really can make a major difference during treatment and recovery.
“Be there 100%,” said Jody. “No one should go through this alone. Surround them with love, support and family. You’ve got to move forward and make it the best life you can. The support helps anyone with small cell lung cancer do that.”
Annette, a mother and grandmother who has been living with SCLC for almost three years, agreed that positive support was an important part of her treatment: “Have people around you that are positive and that can keep you lifted up, helping you through it.”
It’s that type of support that Annette wants to pay forward to you as you make your journey.“I want people to learn from me that anything is possible,” she said. “Stay positive, find your faith or your center or your strength and strengthen it even more.”
The earlier lung cancer is caught, the higher the likelihood that a person’s treatment will work successfully.4
Unfortunately, lung cancer symptoms often do not appear until the disease has already reached an advanced stage. This is why the American Cancer Society recommends yearly lung cancer screenings for people who may be at a higher risk for getting the disease.4
To know if you may be at risk for getting SCLC, ask yourself these questions:5
If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you may want to consider getting screened for lung cancer once each year. Because lung cancer symptoms do not usually appear until the disease is at an advanced stage, annual screening for those at risk can help improve a person’s chances of survival if they are diagnosed in the future.4
If you have concerns due to your personal and family history or other risk factors, don’t be afraid to share those concerns with your healthcare team. They will help you figure out a solution.6
If a physical exam, biopsy or another type of test has confirmed SCLC, the next critical step is understanding the size and growth of the tumor(s) and the spread of the disease. This is referred to as “staging.”7
If SCLC is at the limited stage, this means the cancer is confined to one part of the chest and has not yet spread throughout the body. Extensive-stage SCLC means the tumors have spread to other areas of the body, such as the other lung, brain or bone marrow.7
A patient’s disease stage will inform their treatment options, so it’s important to understand whether they are dealing with limited-stage or extensive-stage SCLC.8
“I was diagnosed in 2014 and at that time it was just the beginning of treatment for small cell,” said Nina, a seven-year SCLC survivor. “And things have changed so much that you get to see all these new treatments coming out. There’s so much happening now for small cell, that it’s really an exciting thing.”
For patients with limited-stage SCLC, treatment with chemotherapy – alone or combined with radiation – is often the recommended course of action. For patients with extensive-stage SCLC, combination chemotherapy with or without an immunotherapy may be used.8 While many will experience periods of remission, it is important to be aware that the cancer may still return.3
There are also a number of clinical trials underway to explore potential treatment options.9,10 Patients can talk to their healthcare providers to learn more about whether they are eligible to participate.
“I wish somebody would’ve told me then how much research matters and that the envelope could be pushed to where we are today,” Montessa described about what she’s seen in the 14 years since her initial diagnosis. “And as in the next few years, I’m certain that we’ll turn on the TV and see all of these advancements for small cell lung cancer research. We’re right on the cusp and I’ve been blessed enough to see all of these advancements for small cell lung cancer since 2006.”
“I tell people when they’re beginning this battle to put their army together,” said Annette.
With SCLC, patients often need to work with medical oncologists who administer chemotherapy treatments, in addition to radiation oncologists and other specialists.11 Being able to communicate with an extended team is a great way for patients to address their full range of needs and stay informed throughout the treatment journey.
This information is for educational purposes only and should not take the place of talking to your doctor or a healthcare professional. The content included on this page does not constitute medical advice and should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. Please be sure to always consult with a physician or medical professional for questions about your medical condition.