Types of Treatment for Small Cell Lung Cancer
Once you learn you have small cell lung cancer (SCLC), the next step is exploring treatment options with your doctor and care team. While there may be a lot of information to process and understand, you should remember there is no fixed path for the treatment journey. Each person’s situation is different; and the treatment options may vary along the way. Work with your team to discuss short- and long-term goals of treatment and frequently check in to talk about how side effects may be impacting your quality of life. “There are new up-and-coming treatments and options for anyone battling small cell lung cancer,” said Annette, who has lived with SCLC for three years, decades after first successfully fighting breast cancer. “It’s why I’m so thankful that this disease didn't catch me 30 years ago.” Let’s explore important steps and potential options along the SCLC treatment journey.
In lung cancer, the goal of surgery is typically to remove a tumor in its entirety. Because cases of SCLC often reach an advanced stage by the time a person is diagnosed – meaning the cancer has spread to other parts of their body – surgery is rarely used as the primary treatment method for this type of disease.1
Chemotherapy has been commonly used in cancer treatment for years and still plays a critical role in treating SCLC. Chemo drugs are given in almost every SCLC case – usually following surgery or in combination with another type of treatment – even if there is no sign of disease spread. These medications work by disrupting the growth and division of cells within a tumor. They can also alleviate some of the symptoms caused by SCLC.2
While chemotherapy can be used as a single treatment, it can also be used along with other options as a concurrent treatment.2 For people with limited-stage SCLC, treatment with chemotherapy – alone or combined with radiation – is often the recommended course of action.3 Similar to how chemotherapy uses drugs to shrink or kill cancer cells, radiation uses high-powered energy beams to kill cells and shrink tumors.4
For patients with extensive-stage SCLC, combination chemotherapy with or without immunotherapy may be used. While many patients will experience periods of remission, it is important to be aware that the cancer may still return.3
While many patients respond well to chemotherapy at first, they can experience recurrence that may be resistant to treatment. And because relapsed SCLC has limited treatment options, there are a number of clinical trials underway to explore other potential therapies.3,5 People can talk to their healthcare providers to learn more about whether they are eligible to participate.
Palliative care focuses on pain symptoms and management and can help people at any stage of their cancer journey.6 Palliative care specialists can help patients address uncomfortable symptoms like pain, fatigue and shortness of breath while working alongside the rest of the care team during active treatment.6
There is a chance that advanced lung cancer may stop responding to treatment. In these cases, people with SCLC and their families have the option to stop curative-intent treatment altogether to make this experience more comfortable.7 Hospice care, also known as end-of-life care, is offered by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors and volunteers to help ease the physical and emotional impacts associated with having a form of cancer that does not respond to treatment. If the family chooses to pursue hospice care, their doctor will provide a referral. There are also a number of national organizations that offer information and resources related to locating and securing hospice services. Just a few of these include Hospice Foundation of America, Caring Connections and Palliative Doctors. This type of care is also covered by Medicare and most insurance plans.7
- LUNGevity Foundation. Surgery. https://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/lung cancer-101/treatment-options/surgery. Updated February 19, 2021. Accessed June 3, 2022.
- LUNGevity Foundation. Chemotherapy. https://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/lung-cancer-101/ treatment-options/chemotherapy. Updated March 5, 2021. Accessed December 5, 2022.
- American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2021. https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/ research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/annual-cancer-facts-and-figures/2021/cancer-facts-andfigures- 2021.pdf. Accessed December 1, 2022.
- LUNGevity Foundation. Radiation therapy. https://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/lung-cancer-101/ treatment-options/radiation-therapy. Updated February 22, 2021. Accessed December 5, 2022.
- LUNGevity Foundation. Immunotherapy. https://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/lung-cancer-101/ treatment-options/immunotherapy. Updated March 11, 2021. Accessed December 5, 2022.
- GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer. Palliative care. https://go2foundation.org/treatments-and-side-effects/ treatment-options/palliative-care. Accessed December 7, 2022.
- GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer. Hospice care. https://go2foundation.org/treatments-and-side-effects/ treatment-options/hospice-care/. Accessed December 7, 2022.