Lung cancer is divided into two main types: small cell and non-small cell. Small cell lung cancer is the least common of the two, accounting for only about 20% of all lung cancers. In the past, the disease was called oat cell cancer because, when viewed under a microscope, the cancer cells resemble oats. This type of lung cancer grows quickly and is more likely to spread to other organs in the body.
The lungs are located along with the heart in the chest cavity. The lungs are not simply hollow balloons, but have a very organized structure consisting of hollow tubes, blood vessels, and elastic tissue. The hollow tubes, called bronchi, are multi-branched, becoming smaller and more numerous at each branching. They end in tiny, blind sacs made of elastic tissue called alveoli. These sacs are where the oxygen a person breathes in is taken up into the blood, and where carbon dioxide moves out of the blood to be breathed out.
Normal, healthy lungs are continually secreting mucus that not only keeps the lungs moist, but also protects the lungs by trapping foreign particles like dust and dirt in breathed air. The inside of the lungs is covered with small, hair-like structures called cilia. The cilia
move in such a way that mucus is swept up out of the lungs and into the throat.
Small cell lung tumors usually start to develop in the central bronchi. They grow quickly and prevent the lungs from functioning at their full capacity. Tumors may block the movement of air through the bronchi in the lungs. As a result, less oxygen gets into the blood and patients feel short of breath. Tumors may also block the normal movement of mucus into the throat. As a result, mucus builds up in the lungs and infection may develop behind the tumor.
Lata Cherath Ph.D., Alison McTavish M.Sc., The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,