Small-cell lung cancer treatment often includes medication like chemotherapy or immunotherapy. Usually, doctors will treat this type of cancer with a combination of medication and other types of treatment.

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Small-cell lung cancer makes up about 15% of all diagnoses. The leading cause of lung cancer remains cigarette smoking, and research strongly associates smoking with an increased risk for small-cell lung cancer.

Small-cell lung cancer tends to cause a more aggressive form of cancer that spreads to other body areas more quickly. Since it spreads more quickly, surgery tends to be less effective for treating this type of cancer.

Cancer treatment teams often recommend medications or a combination of treatment options. This article explores the goal of small-cell lung cancer medications, the types of treatments, and their possible side effects. We also look at other treatments and the general outlook.

The goal of medications for treating small-cell lung cancer includes eliminating cancer cells and relieving symptoms. The type of medications recommended and the treatment goals depend on the cancer stage when diagnosed.

Usually, the treatment team prescribes medications to cure the body of the cancer cells. However, in more advanced stages of cancer where remission is unlikely, medications may help reduce symptoms and provide comfort.

According to a 2021 study, the current standard of treatment for advanced-stage small-cell lung cancer involves a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs.

A chemotherapy medication called Etoposide works by slowing down or stopping the growth of cancer cells. A healthcare professional may prescribe Etoposide as an oral or IV medication directly into the bloodstream.

Possible side effects

Research shows possible adverse effects of taking Etoposide include the following:

Cisplatin, a chemotherapy medication, targets and kills quickly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. People prescribed this medication usually receive it as an IV into their veins or artery.

Possible side effects

Research shows possible side effects of cisplatin include:

Another type of chemotherapy medication, carboplatin, disrupts the growth of cancer cells and prevents them from splitting into more cells.

Research suggests older adults may tolerate this medication when combined with Etoposide, better than other combinations. Typically, people receive carboplatin through an IV.

Possible side effects

The label lists possible side effects as

  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • loss of appetite
  • hair loss
  • numbness
  • tingling, burning, or pain in the hands or feet

Irinotecan, a type of chemotherapy, works by blocking an enzyme that cells use to grow and divide. Without this enzyme working properly, cancer cells stop dividing and spreading. When prescribed Irinotecan, people receive intravenous infusions to administer the medication.

Possible side effects

Research shows possible side effects include:

  • neutropenia, a person has too few white blood cells and an increased risk for other infections
  • diarrhea
  • nausea and vomiting
  • hair loss
  • fatigue

Atezolizumab (Tecentriq), an immunotherapy medication, helps the immune system work properly to find and kill cancer cells. This medication is only approved by the FDA approved for administration through IV.

Possible side effects

Research shows possible side effects include:

Durvalumab (Imfinzi), an immunotherapy medication, helps the immune system target cancer cells by marking a mutated protein making it easier for the body to kill those cells.

Possible side effects

Research shows possible side effects include:

In addition to medications, a person’s treatment team may recommend other types of treatment for small-cell lung cancer. Surgery or radiation may help with treating cancer and improving symptoms.


The healthcare team will evaluate the location, size, and number of tumors to assess the appropriateness of surgery. If surgery has spread to other body areas, the healthcare team likely won’t recommend surgery.

For some people with small-cell lung cancer, their team may recommend surgery to remove the tumor and surrounding tissue. According to a 2021 study, surgical resections may benefit some people with an early-stage small-cell lung cancer.


Radiation therapy uses beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. According to a 2022 review, healthcare professionals may recommend this treatment to help kill the cancer cells or as palliative measures to shrink the tumors to provide comfort.

When healthcare professionals recommend radiation therapy, the treatment plan typically includes radiation combined with surgery or chemotherapy.

Read more about small-cell lung cancer treatment.

Small-cell lung cancer carries a high risk of growing and spreading quickly. Healthcare professionals consider it an aggressive type of cancer; nearly 60% of people with small-cell lung cancer present with metastatic cancer.

With improvements in medical treatment, the overall survival rates of this type of cancer continue to improve.

Small-cell lung cancer occurs less frequently. However, it tends to cause a more aggressive form. Treatment plans often require a combination of multiple medications, surgery, or radiation.

Often, healthcare professionals recommend a combination of chemotherapy or immunotherapy recommendations to treat cancer.

Medications may include:

  • etoposide
  • cisplatin
  • carboplatin
  • irinotecan
  • atezolizumab
  • durvalumab