There are two different types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and nonsmall cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is the less common and more aggressive form.

Five-year survival rates for SCLC vary depending on the stage, but the average is about 7% survival after 5 years.

Survival rates will depend on the stage of cancer and how well a person responds to treatment. Managing risk factors and making lifestyle choices may help support treatment.

This article explores SCLC life expectancy, symptoms, stages, treatment, diagnosis, and risk factors.

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Life expectancy for SCLC is lower compared to the general population, while survival rates are lower than those with nonsmall cell lung cancer.

According to 2017 research, SCLC only accounts for about 10–15% of lung cancers. However, SCLC is also very aggressive, meaning it tends to progress quickly. A person with SCLC’s life expectancy will depend on many factors, such as the stage at diagnosis and their body’s response to treatment.

Early detection is crucial for a positive outlook. The American Cancer Society notes that the 5-year survival rate for SCLC detection in the early stage when the cancer is localized is 27%. If the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body before detection, that 5-year survival rate can drop to 3%. The overall 5-year survival rate for SCLC is 7%.

Early detection is not always possible in SCLC, as people may be free of symptoms in the early stages. However, these numbers do not take every factor into account. Importantly, newer diagnoses and continually improving treatments may lead to improved outcomes.

While SCLC is an aggressive form of cancer, it is often asymptomatic at first. It does not cause any symptoms in many cases, and once they appear, they may be a sign that the disease is spreading or progressing.

Symptoms of SCLC can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • persistent cough
  • hoarse voice
  • coughing up bloody mucus
  • weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue

Anyone experiencing any of these symptoms should contact their doctor for a full checkup — earlier diagnosis may improve a person’s outlook.

Doctors base survival rates for SCLC on the stage of cancer at diagnosis. Classification involves numbered stages (0–4) to describe the severity and progression of cancer.

Staging helps determine how serious the cancer is and what treatments to use. A basic two-stage process, of limited or extensive stages, helps identify possible therapies for SCLC.

Limited stage

With limited stage cancer, the cancer is only in one side of the chest. According to the American Cancer Society, about 33% of people with SCLC will have limited cancer at the time of their diagnosis.

This means a single radiation field can help treat the cancer, which may allow for more aggressive treatments. However, there are some exceptions, such as very widespread cancer in one lung.

Extensive stage

Extensive stage cancer describes cancer that has spread widely throughout a single lung or both lungs. The disease may also be present in the lymph nodes or other tissues.

The American Cancer Society says that about 66% of people with SCLC will have extensive stage cancer at the time of their diagnosis, which may limit treatment options. Additionally, advanced cancers may be incurable.

Doctors may also use the following terms to help explain the cancer’s stage and treatment options:

  • Localized: The cancer involves one area in a tissue or organ.
  • Regional: The cancer has spread outside the tissue to nearby structures or lymph nodes in the area.
  • Distant: The cancer has spread to distant parts of the body away from the original region, such as other organs or bones.

If doctors believe a person has SCLC, they will want to work quickly to deliver treatment as soon as possible. If healthcare professionals can catch SCLC early enough, they may recommend treatments to remove the tumors.


Surgery for SCLC may involve removing sections of the lung or removing the entire lung. Depending on the location of the tumor, surgeons may need to remove and reattach parts of the airway.

Recovery from surgery could take months, and a person may need to limit their activity levels.


Chemotherapy is an aggressive treatment that attacks and kills cancer cells. Chemotherapy with or without radiation may be one of the first options that doctors recommend for early-stage lung cancer.

However, chemotherapy can cause serious side effects, and people should work with a healthcare professional to decide on the best treatment option.


Radiation therapy is an aggressive form of treatment that uses concentrated radiation to kill cancer cells. In some cases, doctors may suggest combining radiation with chemotherapy. This treatment also causes side effects.

Extensive SCLC

If SCLC progresses to the extensive stages, some cancer treatments may not be effective. In these cases, doctors will focus on treating symptoms to make a person comfortable.

Diagnosing SCLC as early as possible is an important factor in improving a person’s outlook and giving them the best chance at survival. If doctors suspect SCLC, they will perform a physical examination and ask about a person’s medical history. A healthcare professional will then order various tests to help confirm their diagnosis, including:

  • complete blood cell count, a blood test to evaluate markers of overall health
  • imaging tests, such as X-rays or CT scans, to check for damaged tissue or growths in the lungs
  • MRI to scan the body for tumors
  • sputum culture, which analyzes a sample of the mucus a person produces as they cough
  • bronchoscopy, which uses a physical tube containing a camera to view the lungs
  • a biopsy to remove a sample of lung tissue for analysis
  • a bone scan to check for bone metastases if doctors feel it may have progressed

Physical examinations may not be helpful in the early stages, as symptoms may not appear until the cancer progresses.

Lung cancer occurs when the cells in the lungs mutate and change. This can happen to anyone, but the risk is highest in people with certain risk factors.

Smoking and secondhand smoke

Smoking is the number one cause and risk factor for lung cancer. The American Lung Association notes that smoking causes up to 90% of lung cancer cases.

Tobacco smoke contains many chemicals that act as carcinogens, which damage lung tissue and may lead to cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, and at least 70 are known to cause cancer.

Quitting smoking is the best thing a person can do for their lung health. Taking steps to avoid secondhand smoke is also important.


Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas in the soil that finds its way into homes. It is another cause of lung cancer. According to the American Lung Association, 1 in 15 homes in the United States are subject to radon exposure.


People’s genes may influence their chances of developing lung cancer. A family history of lung cancer may mean a person is at a higher risk.

Other hazardous chemicals and pollutants

Other hazardous chemicals, particles, and pollutants can also be risk factors for lung damage.

People exposed to the following chemicals may have a higher risk of developing lung cancer:

  • asbestos
  • arsenic
  • cadmium
  • chromium
  • nickel
  • uranium

Particles in the air may also pose a risk. Continuous exposure to dust and fumes, such as dust, fumes, and particles in the air in a workplace, may increase the likelihood of cancer.

SCLC is an aggressive form of lung cancer. The life expectancy and survival rates of people with SCLC are low, although they are improving thanks to advances in treatment options.

SCLC can be asymptomatic in its early stages and only cause symptoms as it progresses. Early diagnosis and treatment help give a person the best outlook. Managing risk factors, such as smoking and environmental pollutants, may help lower a person’s risk of developing lung cancer.