Cancer Council Australia

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Lung cancer - small cell

Symptoms and diagnosis

  • Patients may present with specific symptoms related to the lung including:
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • chest pain
  • cough which can produce blood stained sputum.

or general symptoms which may include:

  • weight loss
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite.

Diagnostic options include a biopsy of the cancer during a bronchoscopy (a tube inserted into the airways) or examination of the sputum for cancer cells.


Lung cancer is defined as either limited disease (about 30% of cases), where disease is confined to one side of the chest and is small enough to be included in a tolerable radiation field, or extensive disease, which has spread to both sides of the chest or to organs beyond, usually liver, bones, adrenal glands or the brain. Scans of these organs are taken to determine the stage.


Cigarette smoking is the major cause, although some people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked.


The major way to prevent lung cancer is not smoking or quitting smoking.


Limited disease is treated with combination chemotherapy (commonly cisplatin and etoposide). Radiotherapy to the chest is given with the early doses of chemotherapy.

Response rates (shrinkage by at least a half) are seen in up to 90% of patients and complete response rates (no visible tumour left) in up to 75% of patients are achieved. Patients who have a complete response can be treated with radiotherapy to the brain to prevent relapse in the brain.

Extensive disease is treated with chemotherapy.


An individual’s prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis. Median survival for limited disease is 18–24 months, with up to 25% of patients alive after five years. For patients with extensive disease, median survival is 12 months, with about 10% of patients surviving two years.

For further information, contact Cancer Council 13 11 20 (cost of a local call within Australia). 


This page was last updated on: Wednesday, October 15, 2014