Lung Cancer: Chemotherapy for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Chemotherapy is a drug or combination of drugs that travels throughout the body to kill cancer cells wherever they might be. Because small cell lung cancer spreads quickly from the lungs to other parts of the body, the primary treatment is chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy for small cell lung cancer is given either alone or in combination with radiation therapy. At Memorial Sloan Kettering, the approach your doctors recommend will depend on the stage of your disease.

  • People with limited-stage small cell lung cancer simultaneously receive a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to shrink the tumor.
  • People with extensive-stage cancer typically receive chemotherapy only. This is because radiation therapy is highly targeted and is not effective when the cancer has spread from the lung where the cancer began to other parts of the body. Radiation therapy may be used in some patients to help improve symptoms or to prevent the cancer from spreading to the brain.

Initial chemotherapy for almost all patients with small cell lung cancer includes the combination of the drug etoposide with a platinum agent (either cisplatin or carboplatin).

Currently, there is only one approved chemotherapy drug for patients whose disease continues to grow or comes back after completion of this initial treatment. And, unfortunately, all patients with extensive-stage small cell lung cancer and the majority of patients with limited-stage small cell lung cancer experience a relapse, meaning that their cancer returns after primary therapy. Doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering are leading efforts to find new drugs for patients whose cancer has recurred following standard treatment.

New Drug Approaches

For many patients, the best treatment strategy is to enroll in a clinical trial that tests new drugs. These drugs can be tested either alone or in combination with more established treatments.

Memorial Sloan Kettering is testing several new drugs for the treatment of small cell lung cancer. These include drugs that are targeted against cancer stem cells — which are thought to give rise to other cells in a tumor and be required for tumor spread — and drugs that target growth pathways normally present only in the developing embryo but that are reactivated in small cell lung cancer.

In addition, we have begun testing drugs that stimulate patients’ own immune systems to recognize and attack small cell lung cancer. All of these approaches are experimental, but have shown promise in laboratory models of small cell lung cancer. You may wish to discuss therapeutic clinical trial options with your doctor. 

We are also conducting studies to investigate the molecular factors that lead to small lung cancer. Understanding these factors holds hope for developing targeted therapies – a new class of drugs that can stop the progression of cancer by binding to specific molecular targets.

By choosing Memorial Sloan Kettering for your care, you may gain access to new treatments that are not widely available elsewhere. Participating in a clinical trial is one way for you to make a valuable contribution toward progress against lung cancer.