Treatment choices for small cell lung cancer

The choice of treatment and the long-term outcome (prognosis) for people who have small cell lung cancer depend on the stage of cancer. Your age, overall health, and quality of life must also be considered. Research studies are ongoing to determine the best treatment choices or combination of treatments that increase survival rates without affecting your quality of life.

There are many combinations of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy used to treat lung cancer. The following table summarizes standard treatment options as described by the National Cancer Institute.1 Treatment options and combinations are always being studied.

Lung cancer stages and treatment choices
Stage Treatment choice


Chemotherapy with radiation at the same time. This combination may increase long-term survival compared with chemotherapy alone.

Chemotherapy alone. This may be recommended if lung function or general health is poor.

Surgery may be an option for a single lung mass if the cancer has not spread (metastasized).

Prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI) may be done to prevent growth of cancer cells that have spread to the brain.



Radiation therapy. This may be recommended for parts of the body where the cancer has spread, such as the brain or in the bones.


Palliative radiation therapy.

Palliative chemotherapy.

Radiation or chemotherapy may be done to relieve pain that is caused by the spread of cancer to the brain, spinal cord, or bones.

Laser therapy or cautery may be done for cancer that is growing inside the bronchial tubes.

Surgical implantation of devices to keep airways open may be needed.

People who are not cured with standard treatments or have more side effects than are desired may want to participate in clinical trials. Clinical trials are designed to find better ways to treat cancer patients and are based on the most up-to-date information. Clinical trials are ongoing in most parts of the world for all stages of lung cancer.


  1. National Cancer Institute (2005). Small Cell Lung Cancer PDQ: Treatment—Health Professional Version. Available online:

Last Updated: June 4, 2008

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