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Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI] - General Information About Small Cell Lung Cancer

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Diagnosis

Treatment options for patients are determined by histology, stage, and general health and comorbidities of the patient. Investigations of patients with suspected SCLC focus on confirming the diagnosis and determining the extent of the disease.

The procedures used to determine the presence of cancer include the following:

  • History.
  • Physical examination.
  • Routine laboratory evaluations.
  • Chest x-ray.
  • Chest computed tomography scan with infusion of contrast material.
  • Biopsy.

Before a patient begins lung cancer treatment, an experienced lung cancer pathologist must review the pathologic material. This is critical because SCLC, which responds well to chemotherapy and is generally not treated surgically, can be confused on microscopic examination with NSCLC.[4] Immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy are invaluable techniques for diagnosis and subclassification, but most lung tumors can be classified by light microscopic criteria.

(Refer to the Staging Evaluation section in the Stage Information for Small Cell Lung Cancer section of this summary for more information about tests and procedures used for staging.)

Prognosis and Survival

Regardless of stage, the current prognosis for patients with SCLC is unsatisfactory despite improvements in diagnosis and therapy made during the past 25 years. Without treatment, SCLC has the most aggressive clinical course of any type of pulmonary tumor, with median survival from diagnosis of only 2 to 4 months. About 10% of the total population of SCLC patients remains free of disease during the 2 years from the start of therapy, which is the time period during which most relapses occur. Even these patients, however, are at risk of dying from lung cancer (both small and non-small cell types).[5] The overall survival at 5 years is 5% to 10%.[1,5,6,7]

An important prognostic factor for SCLC is the extent of disease. Patients with LD have a better prognosis than patients with ED. For patients with LD, median survival of 16 to 24 months and 5-year survivals of 14% with current forms of treatment have been reported.[1,6,8,9] Patients diagnosed with LD who smoke should be encouraged to stop smoking before undergoing combined-modality therapy because continued smoking may compromise survival.[10]

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