Small Cell vs. Non Small Cell Lung Cancer

– What’s the Difference?

There are three major differences between small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer:

  • The size and shape of the cancer cell
  • The most effective forms of treatment
  • The speed with which the cancer spreads

Cell Differences

The comparative size and shape of the cells is the most obvious differentiating factor.  There is one cell type that falls into the small cell lung cancer category: the so-called “oat cell.”  There are several cell variations for non-small cell lung cancer, grouped into three sub-types” squamous cell lung cancer, adenocarcinoma, and large cell lung cancer.  The great majority of all lung cancer types are carcinomas, meaning that the tumors grew from epithelial cells, which line tissues on both the inside and the outside of the body.

The oat cell got its name from its similarity to an oat grain: it is flat, oval in shape, and comparatively small.  One thing that differentiates this cell from other cancer cells is the fact that it has very little cytoplasm in it: cytoplasm is the gel-like material that holds most everything in a cell except the nucleus.  Squamous cells and the cells and the cells that make up an adenocarcinoma are larger and easier to identify.  Oat cells have also proven to be susceptible to certain industrial toxins including asbestos.

Aggressiveness of the Cancers

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is known for its aggressive nature, meaning that it spreads rapidly.  The oat cells reproduce quickly and the disease will spread to distant parts of the body relatively early in the development process.  Non-small cell lung cancer generally will metastasize to remote parts of the body only after it has matured within the lung itself.  Squamous cells are difficult to treat but not known to spread rapidly; some adenocarcinoma lung cancer tumors grow very slowly.  Metastasis occurs later in the maturation of non-small cell cancer than with SCLC, and doesn’t move as rapidly as with small cell lung cancer.

Small cell lung cancer spreads so quickly and so early in the process that often there are no overt symptoms until the spreading to distant locations has already occurred.  For that reason approximately two thirds of all SCLC cases are not diagnosed until the disease is in an advanced stage.  There are four classifications for staging non-small cell lung cancer, a process that defines the extent of the disease and its location.  There are only two for SCLC: limited, and extensive.

Treatment of the Various Lung Cancers 

One of the startling characteristics unique to small cell lung cancer is the highly effective response to chemotherapy and radiation treatment.  It is not unusual for radiation and chemotherapy to wipe out all signs of malignancy, even in cases that have metastasized to remote sections of the body.  For that reason and because the disease is so often diagnosed in an advanced state, surgery is rarely used to remove SCLC tumors.

Non-small cell lung cancer is treated with various mixtures of radiation and chemotherapy depending on what type of cell has formed the tumor.  Different cells have different responses to chemotherapy drugs; one form of non-small cell lung cancer might be treated with cisplatin alone while another might receive a mixture of cisplatin and some other approved chemotherapy drug such as pemetrexed.  Some cells respond well to radiation therapy; others do not.  There has been recent success with the use of internal radiation therapy conducted with radioactive material surgically placed near the malignant tissue.

Legal Advice for Small Cell Lung Cancer Patients

If you or a family member has contracted small cell lung cancer, you may be eligible for compensation.  Hundreds of thousands of people have sued asbestos manufacturing companies over diseases they have developed as a result of asbestos exposure.  If you think your case of SCLC may be related to asbestos exposure, contact an experienced asbestos attorney today.

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