What Is Small Cell Lung Cancer?

Cancers are typically named by the location in the body where tumors begin to grow. Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is just one of two primary types of lung cancer where tumors develop in one or both lungs. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCL) is the second type. The primary difference between the two is their size and the rate at which they grow and spread (metastasize). SCLC cells are much smaller and round when viewed under a microscope, while NSCL cells are bigger. SCLC also metastasizes quicker and more aggressively.

Sometimes specific SCLCs are called oat cell carcinomas because of their small size and resemblance to oats under a microscope.

Small Cell Lung Cancer and Asbestos

There are multiple reasons a person can get small cell lung cancer, and one is prolonged exposure to the toxic mineral asbestos. This mineral naturally occurs deep underground in rock and soil deposits. Asbestos was once used heavily in many different construction projects for its heat resistance.

When those working or living around the mineral inhale its toxic fibers, they can get lodged in the lungs. Once stuck, the fibers will irritate and scratch the area until several years later, tumors may begin to form.

Who’s At Risk of Developing SCLC?

Those at risk for developing SCLC involve anyone who has been around asbestos when it’s in a friable state. Friable asbestos is a consistency where it’s easily crushed or turned into powder. In this state, asbestos fibers can be ingested or inhaled more simply than if the mineral is built into a product like insulation. Whenever there is a construction, demolition, or renovation project involving an asbestos building or products, it’s against the law for the project to commence without sufficient asbestos removal as it’s friable once the project begins.

This is an infograph of the different types of occupations at risk of asbestos related lung cancer.
Occupations at risk for asbestos exposure involve:

These are just a few occupations at risk for asbestos exposure.

SCLC Symptoms

Symptoms of SCLC can sometimes get mistaken for other illnesses, such as pleural mesothelioma since they can be similar.

Common symptoms are:

  • Blood in mucus when coughing
  • Chronic cough
  • Fatigue
  • Hoarse voice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain, tightness, and discomfort in the chest
  • Swollen veins in the face and neck
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath

Additionally, just because a person is exhibiting these symptoms, does not mean they have cancer, they could have another occupational lung disease that may be less severe. Talk to a doctor to receive an early screening and an official medical diagnosis if you show symptoms.

SCLC Diagnosis

When you go to the doctor with concerns about an illness, they’ll conduct tests to determine this. The results will give the doctor enough information to make an official assessment of your health (if not, they can choose to administer more tests until they are sure.)

There are many ways to diagnose this disease, but a biopsy is the only definite testing method. A biopsy is where the doctor will remove a small amount of tissue from the suspected area to be examined by a pathologist (a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory results) under a microscope.

First, the doctor may begin with a chest x-ray (or other imaging tests) and blood work. This, combined with the patient’s medical history and a physical exam, will give the doctor a good idea of what’s going on. If the results show signs of tumor growth, then the doctor will administer the biopsy.

SCLC Stages

SCLC is staged a bit differently than other diseases. Staging encompasses the severity or level of tumor growth in the patient. When there’s a small cell lung cancer diagnosis, stages are broken down into two parts, limited and extensive.

Limited Stage

In the limited stage, tumors are still developing on one side of the chest. Lymph nodes could be affected, but not definitely. The patient will generally have more treatment options in this stage.

Extensive Stage

As the name suggests, the extensive stage is a more advanced form of SCLC. Tumors have already spread to other parts of the chest and second lung. Tumors have also already invaded lymph nodes and distant regions in the body. Most people who come in for medical diagnosis are in this stage, as it’s the stage exhibiting the most symptoms.

Treatment for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Your doctor will need to know your full medical history. They will develop a specific treatment plan for you based on your overall health, stage of your small cell lung cancer, and other essential variables. Some treatment options can include chemotherapy (HIPEC), surgery, radiation, targeted treatment (radiofrequency ablation), or immunotherapies like CAR T-cell therapy.

Based on how far tumors have spread, treatment can be used for curative measures or palliative care. Procedures can also be used alone or in combination with other primary, complementary, or emerging therapies.

Legal Help

If you’ve developed small cell lung cancer (SCLC) due to negligent exposure to asbestos, you could receive financial compensation for your illness from the organizations responsible for the exposure. A cash settlement can be used to cover treatment costs and loss of income, something that can be difficult to acquire otherwise during these times. Talk to an experienced attorney as soon as possible for more information. There’s always a statute of limitations (time-limit) on how long you have to take legal action that usually begins right after your diagnosis.