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Small-Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC)

Small Cell Carcinoma Cells

Small Cell Carcinoma Cells

Perhaps the most important reason to distinguish small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) from other types is that it behaves differently than the other lung cancers. SCLC grows very rapidly and is very aggressive. Soon after the original cell becomes cancerous, it quickly multiplies to form a tumor. These cells swiftly spread to distant sites in the body in a process called metastasis.

Despite the rapid, aggressive growth of small-cell lung cancer, it is remarkably sensitive to chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In fact, surgery is rarely performed for small-cell lung cancer. This does not necessarily mean that small-cell lung cancer has a good prognosis, especially since the disease is often widespread at the time of diagnosis. However, it does mean that surgery is almost always unnecessary in SCLC.

Small-cell lung cancers are somewhat unique in where they form in the lung. They usually grow on the bronchus, but they mostly stay on the lung side of the bronchus rather than growing in the airway. If you think of the bronchus as the pipe that drains a sink, small-cell tumor would not be seen by looking down the drain, but rather by looking at the outside of the drain pipe.

This peribronchial location has advantages and disadvantages for the patient. Since the small-cell lung cancer is reasonably close to the bronchus, a biopsy can be taken using a bronchoscope. This means that oftentimes surgery can be avoided. However, since the tumor may not invade the airway, the primary tumor does not cause symptoms until it has spread. Lack of obvious symptoms delays diagnosis and treatment.

Generally a patient with small-cell lung cancer notices fatigue, weakness, and weight loss. These lung cancers are notorious for causing paraneoplastic syndromes. A paraneoplastic syndrome is a collection of symptoms that is caused by the immune system inappropriately reacting to a cancer. Alternatively, some paraneoplastic syndromes are caused by molecules that are released by the cancer itself. Small-cell lung cancer can cause a number of different paraneoplastic syndromes leading to hormonal disturbances or neurological deficits.

Under a microscope, small-cell lung cancer cells appear relatively small, as the name implies. They are also oval-shaped, which has earned them the name “oat cell” carcinoma. Small-cell lung cancer cells have large, dark nuclei and very little cytoplasm (liquid inside the cell). These tumors appear in sheets with clusters of dying cells near the center. There are a number of special immunohistochemical stains that can be used by a pathologist to make a diagnosis of small-cell lung cancer.

Compensation information is available for those diagnosed with lung cancer. Call us toll-free at 1-800-258-1054.

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Lung Cancer Treatment