Small cell lung cancer patients are usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Patients will usually see an oncologist (cancer specialist) who will supervise their chemotherapy, while a radiation oncologist will supervise their radiotherapy. Oncology nurses that specialize in caring for cancer patients usually administer chemotherapy. The few patients who undergo surgery will see a thoracic surgeon who specializes in operating in the chest cavity.
Clinical staging, treatments, and prognosis
Staging procedures are important in lung cancer because they tell doctors whether patients have disease only in their lungs, or whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. To establish the cancer stage, doctors have to perform various tests. These may include bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, CT scans of the chest and abdomen, MRI scans of the brain, and radionuclide bone scans. All of these tests determine the extent to which the cancer has spread. Once the stage is determined,
doctors can decide on a course of treatment, and can have a better idea of the patient's prognosis.
Unlike other types of lung cancer, the staging of small cell lung cancer is relatively simple. This is because approximately 70% of patients already have metastatic disease when they are diagnosed, and small differences in the amount of tumor found in the lungs do not change the prognosis. Small cell lung cancer is usually divided into three stages:
Limited stage: The cancer is found only in one lung and in lymph nodes close to the lung.
Extensive stage: The cancer has spread beyond the lungs to other parts of the body.
Recurrent stage: The cancer has returned following treatment.
Without treatment, small cell lung cancer has the most aggressive clinical course of any type of pulmonary tumor, with median survival from diagnosis of only 2-4 months. Compared with other cell types of lung cancer, small cell lung cancer has a greater tendency to be widely disseminated by the time of diagnosis, but is much more responsive to chemotherapy and irradiation.
Treatment of small cell lung cancer depends on whether the patient has limited, extensive, or recurrent disease. Treatment usually involves radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Surgery is rarely used for this type of lung cancer because the tumor is usually too advanced.
Patients with limited-stage disease are usually treated with chemotherapy. Combinations of two or more drugs have a better effect than treatment with a single drug. Up to 90% of patients with this stage of disease will respond to chemotherapy. The chemotherapy most commonly prescribed is a combination of the drugs etoposide (Vepesid) and cisplatin (Platinol). Combining chemotherapy with chest radiotherapy and/or occasionally surgery has also prolonged survival for limited-stage patients.
In addition to chest radiotherapy, some patients are also treated with radiation therapy to the brain, even if no cancer is found there. This treatment, called prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI), is given to prevent tumors from forming in the brain. The combination of etoposide and cisplatin chemotherapy with chest radiation therapy and PCI has increased the two-year survival of limited-stage small cell lung cancer patients to almost 50%.
Combinations of different chemotherapy agents are also used for treating extensive-stage small cell lung cancer. However, compared with limited-stage patients, the percentage of extensive-stage patients who respond to therapy is lower. Commonly used drug combinations include cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), doxorubicin (Adriamycin), and vincristine (Oncovin), or etoposide and cisplatin. The addition of radiation therapy to chemotherapy does not improve survival in these patients. However, radiation therapy is used for the palliative (pain relief) treatment of symptoms of metastatic lung cancer, particularly brain and bone tumors.
Patients who have recurrent small cell lung cancer often become resistant to chemotherapy. These patients are treated with palliative radiotherapy. Their doctor may also recommend that they take part in a clinical trial of a new therapy. Patients whose relapse occurs more than six months after their initial treatment, however, may still respond to traditional chemotherapy.
Small cell lung cancer is a very aggressive disease. Without treatment, limited-stage patients will survive for three to six months, while extensive-stage patients will survive six to 12 weeks. However, small cell lung cancer is much more responsive to chemotherapy and radiation therapy than other types of lung cancer. Among patients treated with chemotherapy, 70-90% have a major response to treatment.
Survival in patients responding to therapy is four to five times longer than in patients without treatment. In addition, two years after the start of therapy, about 10% of patients remain free of disease. In general, women tend to have a better prognosis than men. Patients whose disease has spread to the central nervous system or liver have a much worse prognosis. Although the overall survival at five years is 5% to 10%, survival is higher in patients with limited stage disease. About 70% of patients who are disease free after two years do not relapse. After five to 10 disease-free years, relapses are rare.
Alternative and complementary therapies
Many cancer patients have tried using shark cartilage to treat their disease. Shark cartilage is thought to
interfere with the tumor's blood supply. A clinical trial using this treatment in lung cancer patients is ongoing. Information on this and other alternative treatments is available on the Internet from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.