Small cell lung cancer begins when nerve cells or hormone-producing cells in areas surrounding the bronchi (the air tubes that lead from the trachea to the lungs) become abnormal and start to grow uncontrollably. These cells can develop into a mass called a tumor. A cancerous, or malignant, tumor is a collection of a large number of cancer cells that has the ability to spread to other parts of the body (metastasize).
Small cell lung cancer is much less common than another type of lung cancer, called non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer accounts for only 13 percent of all lung cancer cases, or about 30,000 per year in the United States. It develops in equal numbers of men and women.
Small cell lung cancer also behaves differently than non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer tends to metastasize quickly to the mediastinum (the cavity between the lungs) and other parts of the body. This means that when the cancer is identified, it has often already begun to spread. For these and other reasons, diagnosis and treatment for small cell lung cancer is different from that of non-small cell lung cancer.
Many people with lung cancer have no noticeable symptoms. Often the first sign of the disease is an abnormal spot that appears on a chest x-ray or CT scan for another medical condition. Sometimes, however, people notice one or more of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite
- Coughing up phlegm or mucus
- Coughing up blood
Lung cancer can spread within the lung itself as well as to the lymph nodes in the chest, the bones, brain, liver, and adrenal glands. If it does, you may experience pain or discomfort in other parts of the body.
Although these symptoms are associated with small cell lung cancer, they can also develop as a result of other medical conditions not related to cancer. If you experience one or more of these symptoms, talk with your doctor.