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Small Cell Carcinoma

What is small-cell carcinoma?

Small-cell carcinoma of the lung is also known as small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) or oat-cell cancer because the cancer cells may appear to look like oats under a microscope. Small-cell carcinoma is a type of cancer that can appear in various parts of the body, but most often occurs in the lung. It can grow very rapidly and spread to other organs. About 10-15 percent of lung cancers are small-cell carcinomas. Smoking tobacco is the most significant risk factor for developing it. 

There are multiple types of small-cell carcinoma.

  • Combined small-cell carcinoma occurs alongside other types of lung cancer, such as squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma.
  • Extrapulmonary small-cell carcinoma begins somewhere other than the lungs. Common parts of the body for it to begin are the cervix, prostate, liver, pancreas, and bladder. This type of small-cell carcinoma is rare. There are only about 1000 new cases diagnosed per year.

Small-cell carcinoma has two different stages:

Limited stage, when the cancer is only in one lung and maybe one lymph node near the lungs

Extensive stage, when the cancer is in both lungs and has spread to the pleura or to other organs in the body

Small-cell carcinoma symptoms

Small-cell carcinoma usually is found in the central airways and causes the bronchial airways to narrow. Common symptoms of small-cell carcinoma include:

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue or weakness

Many patients who are found to have small-cell carcinoma have cancer that has already spread to other parts of the body. When lung cancer spreads, it can cause additional symptoms.

Other symptoms of lung cancer may include:

  • Chest pain, which can be worsened by deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Coughing up blood 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hoarseness of the throat
  • Recurring lung infections 
  • New wheezing without a history of asthma 

How do doctors diagnose small-cell carcinoma?

If you’re showing possible symptoms of a lung cancer, doctors will begin with a medical history and a physical exam. Doctors may use different tests to diagnose small-cell carcinoma or other types of lung cancers. Which tests your doctor will order and when you will have them may depend upon your risk factors, your symptoms, and your age.

Diagnostic tests

If you have the symptoms of small-cell carcinoma or another type of lung cancer, your doctor may recommend tests to make a diagnosis. Your doctors will often start with an x-ray of your lungs, which could show tumors from lung cancer. If your doctor sees something suspicious, he or she may order more tests. These tests include:

  • CT scans, which can show lung cancer and cancer that may have spread to other parts of the body
  • A brain MRI to show if cancer has spread to the brain
  • PET scan
  • A bone scan, which may show if cancer has spread to the bones
  • Sputum cytology (testing mucus you cough up for cancer)
  • Needle biopsies, in which a doctor uses a needle to take a piece of tissue and test it for cancer
  • Bronchoscopy, in which a doctor passes a lighted tube into your lungs to take a sample of tissue
  • Blood tests to get a sense of your overall health

Tests to find out if the cancer has spread

If you’re found to have small-cell carcinoma, doctors may do further tests to find out if the cancer has spread. These tests include:

  • Endobronchial ultrasound, which involves passing an ultrasound into the windpipe to create a picture of lymph nodes and the area between your lungs
  • Endoscopic esophageal ultrasound, which involves placing an endoscope through your esophagus to look at lymph nodes in your chest
  • Mediastinoscopy and mediastinotomy, in which a doctor will make a surgical incision in your neck or chest to take samples from the area between your lungs
  • Thoracoscopy, in which a surgeon will surgically remove tissue samples from the area between the lung and the chest wall

How do doctors treat small-cell carcinoma?

If doctors determine that you have small-cell carcinoma or another type of lung cancer, they will discuss treatment options with you and weigh the treatment against the possible risks and side effects. Treatment for small-cell carcinoma most often includes chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or some combination of those options. 

Discover your treatment options at Beaumont

If doctors think you may have lung cancer, you can trust Beaumont to meet your treatment needs. Doctors at Beaumont detect more early-stage cancers than any other hospital in Michigan. We use the most advanced treatments and the latest technology to offer patients individually targeted care. Our Lung Cancer Multidisciplinary Clinic at Corewell Health Beaumont Troy Hospital offers you a highly trained and experienced team of cancer specialists.

Through Beaumont’s Multidisciplinary Lung Cancer program, we develop an individualized treatment plan based on your unique situation. Your doctor will work closely with you to develop the most effective treatment plan for you.