Small cell lung cancer is only responsible for around 20% of the diagnosed cases of lung cancer throughout the medical field today. This type of cancer is primarily known for being a smoker’s cancer because the incidence of non-smokers developing it is rare.
Small cell lung cancer has many characteristics that make it different from non-small cell cancers, including the following:
- This cancer grows quickly and spreads rapidly
- Small cell lung cancer is very responsive to chemotherapy and radiation
- Small cell cancer is often associated with a variety of specific paraneoplastic syndromes
- Small cell lung tumors are most commonly diagnosed in smokers
The most common cause of this type of cancer is smoking. Of course, even those who are exposed only to secondhand smoke are at risk for developing this kind of condition. Exposure to other elements, in addition to smoke, can increase your risk for developing this cancer. These elements include things like asbestos, uranium, and radon.
Small Cell Lung Cancer- The Symptoms
Unlike NSCLC (non-small cell lung cancer), small cell lung cancer does have symptoms that are a lot more obvious. These symptoms generally persist for an average of 8-12 weeks before people visit their doctor to get checked out. The symptoms result from the tumor growth, spreading, the paraneoplastic syndrome itself, and other causes. Anyone experiencing the following symptoms needs to seek medical attention and get tested for small cell lung cancer:
- Cough, with or without excessive sputum or blood
- Chest pain and difficulty breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Compression of the chest
- Difficulty swallowing
- Hand and face swelling
- Headache, nausea, blurred vision, weakness, and seizures if the cancer spreads to the brain
- Back pain, rib pain, and other bodily pain due to spreading tumors
- Paralysis of one or more limbs or parts of the body
- Fatigue, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss
Small Cell Lung Cancer- Diagnosis and Treatment
When a patient presents with symptoms listed above, the doctor will take a full medical history and complete a physical exam. This will help rule out more simplistic conditions and other explanations for the symptoms. At that point, tests will be ordered to investigate further. These include things like x-ray, CT scans, PET scans, bronchoscopy, biopsies, and sputum cytology exams. These tests will help determine if there are tumors in the lungs and whether they are malignant (cancer) or benign.
Once the diagnosis of small cell lung cancer has been made, doctors can work with patients to determine a stage and develop a treatment plan based on the severity of the condition. There are two stages of small cell lung cancer:
Limited: The cancer is limited to the lungs and chest area and has not spread.
Extensive: The cancer has spread to outlying areas and other organs in the body.
Generally, this staging will affect the treatment options because more aggressive cases will need more aggressive treatment. Chemotherapy and radiation are the two most common treatment options for this type of cancer. Surgery is an option that some people have, of course, but it typically isn’t chosen as a first line of defense. Because radiation and chemo are often so effective, surgery seems like too much risk. Of course, every case is different and people need to discuss their situation with their doctor specifically to come up with the best possible treatment plan.
The Bottom Line
When you’re dealing with a cancer like this, education and early detection are the two best tools that you have. Fortunately, those things are a lot easier to find with this specific type of cancer than with other types. Take advantage of the resources to get more when you are dealing with small cell lung cancer.