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Treatment for small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

Find out about how your doctor decides which treatment you need, the types of treatment you might have, and treatment by stage.

Deciding which treatment you need

A team of doctors and other professionals discuss the best treatment and care for you. They are called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

The treatment you have depends on:

  • where your cancer is
  • how far it has grown or spread (the stage)
  • your general health and level of fitness

Treatment overview

The main treatments are:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • surgery
  • chemoradiotherapy – chemotherapy with radiotherapy
  • symptom control treatment

You have one or more of these treatments. This depends on the stage of your cancer and also how well the treatment works.

Treatment for limited disease

Limited disease means your cancer is only in one lung. It might be in lymph nodes nearby. The cancer is in a single area that can be treated with radiotherapy. 

The main treatment for limited disease small cell lung cancer is chemotherapy. You usually then have radiotherapy to the chest.

If you are fit enough, you might have chemoradiotherapy. This means that you have chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy.

If your cancer is at a very early stage, you might be able to have surgery to remove the part of the lung containing the cancer. This is called a lobectomy. But surgery isn’t used very often for small cell lung cancer. If you do have surgery, you usually have chemotherapy afterwards and might also have radiotherapy.

After treatment

After you finish treatment, you might have radiotherapy to your head if the cancer in your lung has stopped growing and you are well enough. Radiotherapy to the head is called prophylactic cranial radiotherapy (PCR) and it aims to kill any cancer cells that might have spread to the brain but are too small to see on scans.

Treatment for extensive disease

Extensive disease means your cancer has spread outside your lung, either within your chest or to other parts of your body. It is also called advanced cancer.

Treatment aims to control the cancer for as long as possible and help with symptoms.

If you are well enough you usually have chemotherapy. If the chemotherapy works well, you might have radiotherapy to your lungs afterwards.

After treatment

After treatment you might also have radiotherapy to your head if the cancer has stopped growing and you are well enough. Radiotherapy to the head is called prophylactic cranial radiotherapy (PCR). It aims to kill any cancer cells that might have spread to the brain but are too small to see on scans.

Symptom control

To control symptoms you might also have other treatments such as:

  • radiotherapy
  • internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy)
  • laser treatment
  • freezing the tumour (cryotherapy)
  • a rigid tube called a stent  to keep the airway open
  • light therapy (photodynamic therapy - PDT)

Clinical trials

Doctors are always trying to improve treatments, and reduce side effects. As part of your treatment, your doctor might ask you to take part in a clinical trial. This might be to test a new treatment or to look at different combinations of existing treatments.

Your doctor will discuss your treatment, its benefits and the possible side effects with you.

Last reviewed: 
07 Aug 2017
  • TNM Classification of Malignant Tumours (8th edition)
    International Union Against Cancer   
    John Wiley and Sons, 2016

  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (8th edition)
    American Joint Committee on Cancer
    Springer, 2016

  • Lung cancer: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2011

  • Management of lung cancer
    Scottish Intercollegiate Guideline Network, 2014

  • The IASLC Lung Cancer Staging Project: Proposals for Revision of the TNM Stage Groupings in the Forthcoming (Eighth) Edition of the TNM Classification for Lung Cancer
    Peter Goldstraw and others for the Study of Lung Cancer Staging and Prognostic Factors Committee
    Journal of Thoracic Oncology, 2015, vol.11, No.1:39-51

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