Key Points about Small Cell Lung Cancer

  • Small cell lung cancer is also known as SCLC or oat cell cancer.
  • Doctors use imaging tests, biopsy and physical exam to diagnose SCLC.
  • Treatment for SCLC typically involves chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
  • Few people with SCLC will need to undergo surgery as treatment.


Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs, which are located in the chest and are an important part of the respiratory (breathing) system. About 10 to 15% of lung cancers are small cell lung cancer or SCLC. SCLC is very likely to metastasize (spread) to areas of the body outside the lungs. People with SCLC typically need to undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Small cell lung cancer causes 

Small cell lung cancer – also known as oat cell cancer – is caused by a mutation (change) to the DNA of the cells of the lungs.

Small cell lung cancer risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk for developing SCLC:

  • Being a smoker or having a history of smoking
  • Being exposed to radon gas or asbestos
  • Being exposed to second-hand smoke
  • Being female
  • Being younger
  • Having a family history of lung cancer
  • Having undergone radiation therapy to the chest for another type of cancer

Small cell lung cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of SCLC can include:

  • Cough that doesn’t go away
  • Coughing up blood
  • Headache
  • Hoarseness
  • Pain in the chest
  • Pain in your bones
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unintentional weight loss

Small cell lung cancer diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose oat cell cancer:

  • Physical exam - your doctor will perform a complete physical exam – including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Biopsy - in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from your lung. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan - your doctor may order a CT scan of your chest. This specialized imaging test uses a series of X-ray images to create detailed images of the inside of your body. Imaging tests help your doctor determine if the cancer has spread beyond your lungs.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan - your doctor may use this type of imaging test to help determine if the cancer has spread. A PET scan uses a radioactive substance to provide information about the activity of potentially cancerous cells.
  • Sputum cytology - if you have a persistent cough, your doctor may send a sample of your sputum (spit) to the lab for close analysis. Sometimes, cancerous cells can be seen in the sputum sample.
  • X-ray - your doctor may use an X-ray imaging test to check for spots on your lungs that could be areas of cancer.

Small cell lung cancer treatment

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of your small cell lung cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Surgery - if the area of cancer is very small, your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure to remove the cancerous cells. In most cases, however, people with SCLC are not candidates for surgical treatment due to the larger size of the cancerous area.
  • Chemotherapy - this treatment involves the use of medications to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be delivered orally (a pill taken by mouth) or an intravenous, or IV, liquid (injected into a vein). You may need to undergo chemotherapy after surgery so that your doctor can destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.
  • Radiation therapy - this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo radiation therapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.

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