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    Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Treatment Option Overview for Small Cell Lung Cancer

    Chemotherapy and radiation therapy have been shown to improve survival for patients with small cell lung cancer (SCLC).


    Chemotherapy improves the survival of patients with limited-stage disease (LD) or extensive-stage disease (ED), but it is curative in only a minority of patients.[1,2] Because patients with SCLC tend to develop distant metastases, localized forms of treatment, such as surgical resection or radiation therapy, rarely produce long-term survival.[3] With incorporation of current chemotherapy regimens into the treatment program, however, survival is prolonged, with at least a fourfold to fivefold improvement in median survival compared with patients who are given no therapy.

    The combination of platinum and etoposide is the most widely used standard chemotherapeutic regimen.[4,5,6][Level of evidence: 1iiA] No consistent survival benefit has resulted from platinum versus nonplatinum combinations, increased dose intensity or dose density, altered mode of administration (e.g., alternating or sequential administration) of various chemotherapeutic agents, or maintenance chemotherapy.[7,8,9,10,11,12][Level of evidence: 1iiA]

    Radiation Therapy

    SCLC is highly radiosensitive and thoracic radiation therapy improves survival of patients with LD and ED tumors.[13,14,15][Level of evidence: 1iiA] Prophylactic cranial radiation prevents central nervous system recurrence and may improve the long-term survival of patients who have responded to chemoradiation therapy [16,17,18][Level of evidence: 1iiA] and offers palliation of symptomatic metastatic disease.

    Treatment for patients with limited-stage, extensive-stage, or recurrent SCLC is summarized in Table 1.

    Table 1. Standard Treatment Options for Patients With Small Cell Lung Cancer

    Stage Standard Treatment Options
    Limited-stage disease Chemotherapy and radiation therapy
    Combination chemotherapy alone
    Surgery followed by chemotherapy or chemoradiation therapy
    Prophylactic cranial irradiation
    Extensive-stage disease Combination chemotherapy
    Radiation therapy
    Prophylactic cranial irradiation
    Recurrent disease Chemotherapy
    Palliative therapy

    Despite treatment advances, the majority of patients with SCLC die of their tumor even with the best available therapy. Most of the improvements in the survival of patients with SCLC are attributable to clinical trials that have attempted to improve on the best available and most accepted therapy. Patient entry into such studies is highly desirable.

    Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.


    1. Comis RL, Friedland DM, Good BC: Small-cell lung cancer: a perspective on the past and a preview of the future. Oncology (Huntingt) 12 (1 Suppl 2): 44-50, 1998.
    2. Agra Y, Pelayo M, Sacristan M, et al.: Chemotherapy versus best supportive care for extensive small cell lung cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev (4): CD001990, 2003.
    3. Prasad US, Naylor AR, Walker WS, et al.: Long term survival after pulmonary resection for small cell carcinoma of the lung. Thorax 44 (10): 784-7, 1989.
    4. Johnson BE, Grayson J, Makuch RW, et al.: Ten-year survival of patients with small-cell lung cancer treated with combination chemotherapy with or without irradiation. J Clin Oncol 8 (3): 396-401, 1990.
    5. Lassen U, Osterlind K, Hansen M, et al.: Long-term survival in small-cell lung cancer: posttreatment characteristics in patients surviving 5 to 18+ years--an analysis of 1,714 consecutive patients. J Clin Oncol 13 (5): 1215-20, 1995.
    6. Fry WA, Menck HR, Winchester DP: The National Cancer Data Base report on lung cancer. Cancer 77 (9): 1947-55, 1996.
    7. Ihde DC, Mulshine JL, Kramer BS, et al.: Prospective randomized comparison of high-dose and standard-dose etoposide and cisplatin chemotherapy in patients with extensive-stage small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol 12 (10): 2022-34, 1994.
    8. Arriagada R, Le Chevalier T, Pignon JP, et al.: Initial chemotherapeutic doses and survival in patients with limited small-cell lung cancer. N Engl J Med 329 (25): 1848-52, 1993.
    9. Klasa RJ, Murray N, Coldman AJ: Dose-intensity meta-analysis of chemotherapy regimens in small-cell carcinoma of the lung. J Clin Oncol 9 (3): 499-508, 1991.
    10. Elias AD, Ayash L, Frei E 3rd, et al.: Intensive combined modality therapy for limited-stage small-cell lung cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst 85 (7): 559-66, 1993.
    11. Murray N, Livingston RB, Shepherd FA, et al.: Randomized study of CODE versus alternating CAV/EP for extensive-stage small-cell lung cancer: an Intergroup Study of the National Cancer Institute of Canada Clinical Trials Group and the Southwest Oncology Group. J Clin Oncol 17 (8): 2300-8, 1999.
    12. Amarasena IU, Walters JA, Wood-Baker R, et al.: Platinum versus non-platinum chemotherapy regimens for small cell lung cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev (4): CD006849, 2008.
    13. Pignon JP, Arriagada R, Ihde DC, et al.: A meta-analysis of thoracic radiotherapy for small-cell lung cancer. N Engl J Med 327 (23): 1618-24, 1992.
    14. Warde P, Payne D: Does thoracic irradiation improve survival and local control in limited-stage small-cell carcinoma of the lung? A meta-analysis. J Clin Oncol 10 (6): 890-5, 1992.
    15. Murray N, Coy P, Pater JL, et al.: Importance of timing for thoracic irradiation in the combined modality treatment of limited-stage small-cell lung cancer. The National Cancer Institute of Canada Clinical Trials Group. J Clin Oncol 11 (2): 336-44, 1993.
    16. Turrisi AT 3rd, Glover DJ: Thoracic radiotherapy variables: influence on local control in small cell lung cancer limited disease. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 19 (6): 1473-9, 1990.
    17. Aupérin A, Arriagada R, Pignon JP, et al.: Prophylactic cranial irradiation for patients with small-cell lung cancer in complete remission. Prophylactic Cranial Irradiation Overview Collaborative Group. N Engl J Med 341 (7): 476-84, 1999.
    18. Slotman B, Faivre-Finn C, Kramer G, et al.: Prophylactic cranial irradiation in extensive small-cell lung cancer. N Engl J Med 357 (7): 664-72, 2007.

    This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

    WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

    Last Updated: May 28, 2015
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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