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What is Small Cell Carcinoma?

By J. Beam
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Small cell carcinoma is a type of cancer that almost always affects the lung. It may also be referred to as oat cell carcinoma and, in some cases, is a mixed cell carcinoma. This cancer is almost always caused by smoking, but exposure to large amounts of asbestos is also a risk factor. Small cell carcinoma usually effects men more than women, and while not a common type of lung cancer, is considered very deadly.

Unlike other types of cancer, small cell carcinoma is not staged on a numerical scale but rather as simply limited or extensive. The limited stage refers to cancer that is contained within the lungs or bronchial tubes only. Extensive stage indicates the cancer has spread to areas outside of the chest. Limited stage small cell carcinoma is rare because it is usually not diagnosed until it has become extensive.

The symptoms of small cell carcinoma are similar to other types of lung cancer and may include chronic coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, sputum production, and possibly weight loss. Smokers are at the greatest risk for developing most types of lung cancer.

Diagnosis is typically done with imaging tests such as MRI or PET scan and biopsy. Treatment must involve chemotherapy and while small cell carcinoma responds well to the drugs, it is very aggressive and always returns. Though it only accounts for approximately 15% of lung cancers, the prognosis for this type is worse than for other types.

Even with treatment, small cell carcinoma usually metastasizes to other organs quickly. After the lungs, the liver, kidneys, and brain are usually effected. Surgery is almost never an option and the prognosis for almost all cases is short-term.

The best way to prevent this other types of lung cancers is to not smoke and to avoid second hand smoke. Anyone who has symptoms of lung cancer, especially people with a history of smoking or a family history of cancer, should consult a medical professional for testing and diagnosis.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon336312 — On May 27, 2013

My daughter was given the diagnosis of small cell lung cancer about six weeks ago. She has no insurance, but after a few days, we were able to get her in to see a doctor. She has gone through her first round of chemo. The cancer is in lung, chest and lymph nodes. What I have read is bad, but my daughter is hopeful that she will be in the 5 percent that make it. As a mother, this is one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever had to face, and I'm not the one with the C word.

By anon331632 — On Apr 24, 2013

My Dad went into the hospital in November 2012, just for a check-up after another, totally different operation. However he felt short of breath, and so they decided to X-ray him. They found his lung was full of fluid and started investigations to see what was up.

After a week of being in the hospital, they did a lung biopsy and other bloodwork/tests and they told us that he had advanced or extensive small cell lung cancer, and there was no treatment they could give him. They said he would be lucky to have four months. Four days later he passed away, December 2012. That was four months ago and we miss him like crazy. It was so quick and so aggressive. Rest in peace, my beautiful Daddy.

By anon294916 — On Oct 03, 2012

My uncle was told he has small cell carcinoma, but it's not in his lungs, it's in his prostate area. Is that possible?

By anon294728 — On Oct 02, 2012

I was diagnosed last week with small cell carcinoma and have my first appointment with my oncologist next week. The pulmonary doctor said so far it's contained in my right lung and lymph nodes so I will get chemo very soon.

I don't know what's in my future and I'm scared, but I have to turn it over to God because He's the only one who can cure me for sure. Good luck to all of you and may God bless you all.

By amypollick — On Apr 17, 2012

@Kasie: I'm a daddy's girl, too. I'm so sorry your dad is going through this, and I will certainly keep him -- and your family -- in my prayers. God bless you all.

By anon261744 — On Apr 17, 2012

My dad is 46 years old. He has been extremely sick, and weak for the past eight months. He went to the doctor, and they diagnosed him with gout, but on further examination found that he has small cell carcinoma. He was diagnosed two weeks ago, and started chemo last week.

I'm only 17 and so afraid I'm going to lose my daddy. I have always been a daddy's girl. He has gone from 140 pounds to 108 pounds in this short amount of time. He also has large knots all over his body. I really would just like someone to pray for him, because that's the true way to heal. His name is Rodney, and I'm Kasie. Thanks for reading.

By anon257883 — On Mar 29, 2012

My mom found a lump on her breast last November 2011. Then they told us it was small cell carcinoma. By the time they caught it, it had had gone from her lung to her breast to her brain to her adrenal glands by her kidneys and on her back.

At the age of 48, she did the chemo and radiation but one morning woke up coughing up blood. It was a small amount, but she passed away 24 hours later. She is truly missed by her family. This diagnosis was a total shock to her and her family. She had no signs that she was sick. She lived a long, hard two months of battling this.

Thanks for listening. It's almost two months since she passed away.

By anon240816 — On Jan 16, 2012

@pete 1427: My mom was diagnosed with small cell carcinoma and just like your wife, they found a tumor in her brain, and its source was the small cell carcinoma in her lung.

I would like to know what treatment your wife got because they told my mom that this is an aggressive cancer and offered only chemotherapy as treatment.

By pete1427 — On Nov 25, 2011

There is hope for those diagnosed with small cell carcinoma.

Over eight years ago, my wife was diagnosed with small cell carcinoma and it had metastasized to her brain. The initial prognosis was not at all encouraging as they initially told her to get her affairs in order.

The brain lesion was fortunately on the surface of the brain and was treated with gamma knife surgery. The lungs were treated with chemotherapy. Her lung cancer was diagnosed as the extensive of small cell carcinoma. That was over eight years ago, and there are no current signs of recurrence.

The sad side of this story is that a hospital north of Seattle was treating her for pneumonia and her breathing issues were getting worse.

She gave up on those doctors, and that hospital, and went to a hospital in downtown Seattle. They looked at the X-rays from the other hospital and ordered a new set to be taken, because the old X-rays did not show pneumonia, but did show cancer forming in her left lung. Had the other hospital been competent, her treatment would have begun at least 2 1/2 months sooner. As it is, I am pleased that she survived this misdiagnosis.

At the time of her initial cancer diagnosis, my daughter was in junior high. She has now graduated from college. My wife vowed that she would see our daughter graduate from high school. She did and has now been to her graduation from college (cum laude).

By anon229269 — On Nov 13, 2011

I 40 years old, quit smoking cigarettes three years ago, but unfortunately continued smoking marijuana very heavily. You know the story -- non cancerous, my butt. I have been battling for just over eight months now. I quit smoking and drinking also.

I am on my second round of chemo which finally knocked out all of my hair. It was found in and around my left lung. It then jumped to my spine, has been in nodes in my neck, under my collar bone, both shoulders, both hips, and this morning I can feel it in my lower spine. In an x-ray it looks like a ghost where it is present.

I will start my fourth radiation therapy as soon as they can get me in. I went from 195 to 160 pounds and eat everything in sight to keep my weight up. I don't feel like it is killing me, though. Exercise is important and so is attitude.

I have a lot of people praying for me and a wonderful fiance with child. We have been together 10 strong years. My medical team seems to give me everything I ask them for. I do feel like we are fighting symptoms not the disease, but maybe that's all the same. Anyway live strong. I don't wish to die. My father turns 80 this month and I feel my life is only half over. Some days are definitely hell, but I accept those too.

SSDI has covered my bills and Medicaid has covered the pills. I used to be a semi pro golfer, and now it's PS3 and shopping when I can, for guns to rebuild and sell. something I truly enjoy. Anyway if you get cancer, fight, fight fight and then have some fun! What else can you do?

My prayers go out to everyone who has a form of this terrible bug. Try to keep a stiff upper lip. I think it has a lot to do with positive energy around you. Surround yourself with those people. God bless.

By anon199758 — On Jul 25, 2011

My ex was diagnosed thursday with small cell cancer of the lung. They are looking to see if it has spread. I have a 16 year old with and a 19 year old with him. The doctor who found it said it was treatable but everything I have see it is now a good outlook.

My aunt died two years ago from the same thing. Hers went to her brain and she didn't last very long. Any info that would be very helpful. Thanks everyone and all my love and God bless everyone.


By anon164740 — On Apr 02, 2011

I lost my husband to small cell carcinoma in 2002. We were short two months of being married two years, when he passed. When we found out he had cancer, we were told he had two to six months to live. He fought it for two and a half years. He was diagnosed, just before we were to be married, and he died a horrible death. I pray for everyone who has to deal with this awful thing.

By anon150793 — On Feb 08, 2011

I'm wondering just why we are not looking far more closely outside the box?

By anon146925 — On Jan 27, 2011

My mother has small cell carcinoma. It started with hip pain. She has dealt with treatment very well. She is now on her second course of chemo. I didn't expect her to be here this long or do this well.

Even though I know it's not long, she's quite comfortable now and doing well despite the situation. My father died of prostate cancer and it wasn't pretty. I hope my mother doesn't suffer like he did. May God be with you all!

By anon146879 — On Jan 27, 2011

My Mom was diagnosed April 2010. It went from her lung into her brain. She had surgery on her brain and it was removed, however she went numerous rounds of chemo and radiation on both her brain and lung. They are looking today to see if it has spread into her stomach.

I am hoping that the doctor will say no, it has not spread any further. Praying to god the answer is no.

By anon146071 — On Jan 25, 2011

my sweet child is suffering also from small cell he also suffers from r.s.d. both these illness have no cure. i live day by day and must say my son is my hero.

By anon145305 — On Jan 23, 2011

my mom has been battling small cell for about a year and a half. if you read up on small cell, the experts say she should be dead and she's not.

i live in fear every day about how long i have with her. it could be a few months or years. don't let anyone tell you that the one you love only has so long to live. only God knows! and even though it's hard to believe, God has a reason for everything.

Pray, pray, pray! i believe that my mom can beat this, and so can all of your loved ones! i read these and pray for each one of you. keep your head up!

By anon144804 — On Jan 20, 2011

My dad has squamous cell carcinoma. He found out in May 2010 an we just recently found out my brother has small cell carcinoma. Please pray for them both.

By anon142294 — On Jan 12, 2011

I was diagnosed with a small cell carcinoma in June of 2010. I had a hysterectomy, followed by five rounds of chemotherapy and the cancer has gone. I'm very lucky to be speaking now. I was told this cancer is a silent killer.

I refused to let this disease from the devil take me from my 10-year-old twin girls. They are what I live and breathe for. Never give up hope, and never stop believing in a higher power. Many people prayed for me, and i am here now because of this. Keep believing even when times are not so clear.

I will always believe I'm free. I found this cancer and I told my doctors that it wasn't as bad as they would have believed. I was right and I am back to work and I truly believe that God has given me a second chance to live. My children have been through a lot with this all summer and now it's winter. We will continue to fight and never stop fighting.

How I encountered this is irrelevant. What's most important is living and being with my girls and family as much as possible and making many memories for our future. I will not be defeated by this my mind is more powerful than this disease. Cancer is a scary word but soon, I believe the medical world will find a way to detect these diseases early enough to treat so that no one else will lose their battle with it. I will always be positive, and never be negative, because it is how the devil exists. He does not exist in my world. Good luck to all and God bless. --RBK

By anon139722 — On Jan 05, 2011

My dad was diagnosed today with Small Cell. He goes in tomorrow morning for the PET scan and brain MRI. Looking for any information that you may have regarding this horrible, horrible disease.

By anon124334 — On Nov 05, 2010

My mother-in-law died a year ago from lung cancer at age 87. Her mother died of lung cancer at age 84. They were not smokers. What are the chances of children and grandchildren being susceptible to lung cancer, even without smoking? Is it likely that the 80s are the age in which the risk is great? What kind of health screening should descendants get?

By anon123971 — On Nov 04, 2010

My mother passed away two days after we received the diagnosis. After researching her cause of death, I can only ask why? Why was it not found and diagnosed earlier. Twenty years later and I still wonder and miss her. Cancer is a terrible six letter word.

By anon103057 — On Aug 10, 2010

My mother was diagnosed in May of this year. It was already in her bones but not the brain yet. She is just finishing her first cycle of chemo and they are talking about radiation to the brain! Should we do the radiation? I know it is palliative. How long do you think she has?

By anon98087 — On Jul 22, 2010

I have a small cell carcinoma in the cervix. I underwent chemotherapy, brachytherapy, radiotherapy even total hysterectomy. And now I'm about to undergo another six sessions of chemotherapy. This battle has already been a year since I was diagnosed of a cervical cancer. I don't want to lose hope and I will fight this cancer because I have a family that is worth fighting for. To God be the glory!

By anon91618 — On Jun 22, 2010

My boyfriend passed away recently due to small cell. He was 16 years old. Maybe his smoking really got to him. I wish he stopped sooner or never even started.

I'm just so surprised. He kept at it strong five months or more prior. I never knew it was that aggressive and he only told me that he had a month to live just last month. It tore my heart in half. I'm proud. You tried your hardest, just for me.

By anon91216 — On Jun 20, 2010

all we can do is love them. we are not promised tomorrow. my son is fighting this horrible illness for the second time.

By anon90170 — On Jun 14, 2010

My nanny was just diagnosed with small cell carcinoma today. My grandpa died from cancer about 17 years ago so it's kind of weird that my grandma now has it.

This cancer, in my opinion, is very aggressive so if you have any of the symptoms like wheezing, then take charge. Talk to your doctor if you do have any symptoms. It's usually caused by smoking so stop smoking.

I'm so worried about her but I have faith that she's going to be okay. But I do have one question: is this kind of cancer hereditary?

Thanks. S.

By anon79655 — On Apr 23, 2010

My sister died a year ago from small cell carcinoma.

She went to the hospital on Feb. 1. and we were told on the 6th that is was terminal and she was gone on the 13th. She hadn't been feeling well for about one and a half months prior. This is a very aggressive type of cancer and hers was very angry.

By anon77739 — On Apr 15, 2010

My husband died in February of small cell. The doctor can only guess at a time frame.

My husband was diagnosed and died six weeks later. The TX only made his white cell count go low. Live every day as if your loved is leaving this world soon.

This cancer is the worst and the the docs have no right answer. I found Hospice to know more about a time frame.

By anon77662 — On Apr 15, 2010

i want to know which type of cells are responsible for small cell cancer, like in the case of Adeno ca- Glandular cells.

By anon76535 — On Apr 10, 2010

My Uncle was just diagnosed with small cell carcinoma tonight! He has been in and out of hospitals trying to figure out what is wrong with him for two months. He has been filling up with fluids for about three weeks and his blood pressure and heart rate has been acting up for about a week. They just diagnosed him a couple of hours ago and is only expected to live for a few more hours.

By anon73427 — On Mar 27, 2010

My wife has small cell but they said it came from a c section scar. Is that possible?

By anon44932 — On Sep 11, 2009

Is small cell carcinoma hereditary?

By anon37875 — On Jul 22, 2009

My mother is on no treatment for over a year. The doctors still say 3-6 months but has been a long time and I'm still waiting. How much longer is this going to go?

By anon36565 — On Jul 13, 2009

my sister was getting chemo for small cell caricinoma but her doctors said it not working. right now she keeps filling up with fluids. what is her outlook and how much time does she have left?

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