Hearing your doctor say that you have small cell lung cancer can bring about a lot of emotions. It can be helpful to have a better understanding of what lung cancer is.

What is small cell lung cancer?

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC), sometimes referred to as "oat-cell carcinoma," occurs when the cells in your lungs start to grow unusually or uncontrollably. This unusual growth takes place inside your lungs or the lining of the airways. As more cancer cells grow, they can form into a tumor.

SCLC is an aggressive form of cancer because it can grow quickly. When the cancer is first found, it may only be present in one of the two lungs in the chest (limited-stage SCLC).

As the disease advances, it may spread to the other lung or to other parts of the body. This is called extensive-stage SCLC. For many people with SCLC, the cancer can spread soon after diagnosis.

What are some of the symptoms of SCLC?

There can be many different symptoms associated with SCLC. It is important to be aware of what they are so that you can discuss them with your healthcare provider.

The most common signs and symptoms of SCLC may include:

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored spit
  • Chest pain that may get worse when taking deep breaths, coughing, or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing

When small cell lung cancer spreads to distant organs (extensive-stage SCLC), it can cause other symptoms which may include:

  • Bone pain (like pain in the back or hips)
  • Nervous system changes (such as headache, weakness or numbness of an arm or leg, dizziness, balance problems, or seizures) from cancer spreading to the brain
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice) from cancer spreading to the liver
  • Lumps near the surface of the body due to cancer spreading to the skin or to lymph nodes (collection of immune system cells), such as those in the neck or above the collarbone

Experiencing the above symptoms does not necessarily mean you have lung cancer. However, it is very important to talk to your healthcare team if you experience any of these symptoms. Your healthcare team has the knowledge and the tools needed to make the appropriate diagnosis.

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