Small Cell and Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

14th June 2017  

If you or someone you care about receives a diagnosis of lung cancer it can help ease the worry if you understand something about the disease.Lung cancers can be split into two different groups, small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). In this article we are going to answer the question, ‘What are the differences between small cell and non-small cell lung cancers?’ whilst also considering diagnosis and treatment for each.

small cell lung cancer

What are the symptoms of lung cancers?

Both small cell and non-small cell cancers demonstrate similar symptoms but usually only in the later stages:

Common symptoms

  • Coughing (including coughing up blood)
  • Chest pain (including shortness of breath)

Other possible symptoms

  • Tiredness and the inability to carry out daily activities
  • Weight loss and low appetite
  • Pain in joints or limbs
  • Swelling in the neck or face (including difficulty swallowing)

Cancers can spread to other parts of the body (metastasis) via the following means:

  • By invading nearby tissue
  • By travelling to and then through the lymphatic system
  • By travelling through the bloodstream

What are the risk factors for lung cancers?

Most people understand that smoking is the main risk factor for lung cancers. Smoke and smoking related chemicals, including those which enters the lungs through passive smoking cause cell damage that can result in cell changes and possibly cancers.

lung cancer treatment

There are however some other causes of lung cancer:

  • Family history (your chances of developing lung cancer are higher if a member of your close family has had it)
  • Exposure to certain chemicals or radiation sources (including air pollution)
  • Developing HIV
  • Age (this is true for most cancers)

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

In order to determine exactly what type of lung cancer a patient has it will be necessary to examine cancer cells under a microscope. These cells can be collected using sputum samples, biopsy samples and bronchoscopy samples.

Other lung cancer diagnosis methods include x-rays or CT scans, blood and urine tests and a general physical examination.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

What is small cell lung cancer?

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is a fast-growing lung cancer that has a tendency to spread to other parts of the body during its early stages. Around 12% of lung cancer diagnoses are of small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer often starts in the bronchi near to the centre of the chest and has smaller cells than non-small cell lung cancers.

small cell carcinoma

Who is likely to get small cell lung cancer?

Small cell lung cancer does not occur very often in non-smokers.

What are the treatments for small cell lung cancer?

Small cell lung cancer can be more responsive to chemotherapy than non-small cell lung cancer. Other treatment methods for small cell lung cancer include:

  • Surgery to remove cancerous cells and nearby lymph nodes (to prevent cancer cells from spreading via the lymph system)
  • The insertion of stents to open elements of airways that have been closed by cancer cells
  • Laser therapy
  • Radiotherapy

What is the prognosis for small cell lung cancer?

Small cell cancers usually grow more quickly than non-small cell cancers. This means that small cell cancer patients are often not diagnosed until the cancer has spread to the lymph system and nearby organs. This speed of spread has an obvious impact on survival rates. According to Cancer Research, the 5-year survival rate for small cell cancers at stage 2 (cancers smaller than 7cm that may have spread to other tissues but haven’t spread to the lymph nodes) is between 20% and 40%.

Non-Small Cell Cancer

What is non-small cell lung cancer?

Around 87% of cancer diagnoses are non-small cell cancers, the cells of these are larger than small cell lung cancers.

non small cell lung cancer

Non-small cell cancers can be divided into three groups, which respond differently to types of treatment:

  • Adenocarcinoma (starts in the cells that make mucus in your airways)
  • Squamous cell cancer (starts in the cells covering your airway surfaces)
  • Large cell carcinoma (look large and round when viewed under a microscope)

Who is likely to get non-small cell lung cancer?

Non-small cell lung cancer can occur in both smokers and non-smokers.

What are the treatments for non-small cell lung cancer?

Treatments methods for non-small cell lung cancer are the same as those for small cell lung cancer although non-small cell lung cancer is less responsive to chemotherapy, these include:

  • Surgery to remove cancerous cells and nearby lymph nodes (to prevent cancer cells from spreading via the lymph system)
  • The insertion of stents to open elements of airways that have been closed by cancer cells
  • Laser therapy
  • Radiotherapy

What is the prognosis for non-small cell lung cancer?

Non-small cell lung cancers usually grow less quickly than small cell lung cancers. According to Cancer Research UK the 5-year survival rate for non-small cell cancers at stage 2 (cancers smaller than 7cm that may have spread to other tissues but haven’t spread to the lymph nodes) is between 25% and 46%.

Can I develop both small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer?

A small percentage (around 10%) of lung cancer patients can have both small and non-small cell cancer. Studies have not yet concluded as to whether this combination is more difficult to treat than single lung cancer types.

Radiotherapy is one possible treatment for people with lung cancers of all types. If you are worried about any side effects get in touch with your treatment team and explain your concerns. There are a number of tried and tested ways of alleviating radiotherapy side effects that can make your treatment easier to deal with and your recovery smoother. Find out more about our R1 cooling gel and R2 soothing lotion today.