When you or a loved one is diagnosed with small cell lung cancer (SCLC), it can be overwhelming. There is a lot of new information and decisions, but one thing that you may find helpful is to share your life and treatment goals with your healthcare team. They can work with you to design a treatment plan that’s right for your unique situation. Here are some treatment options your doctors might suggest, based on whether you have limited-stage or extensive-stage SCLC.


For people with limited-stage SCLC, surgery is rarely used, but it may be an option if you have early-stage SCLC. If so, surgery would usually be followed by additional treatment, which is referred to as adjuvant therapy. Your healthcare team can help you understand how to prepare for surgery, and what kind of recovery time it may require.


Chemotherapy works by attacking all fast-growing cells like cancer cells and is often given as an intravenous infusion into the bloodstream. Because blood travels throughout the body, it enables the treatment to travel in the body to where the cancer has spread.

Since chemotherapy works to destroy fast-growing cells, it can also affect healthy cells. Talk with your doctor about what might happen to your body during chemotherapy, and how you can prepare for potential side effects. For people with limited-stage SCLC, chemotherapy is often given with radiation therapy. This is known as chemoradiation. For people with extensive-stage SCLC, the main treatment is usually chemotherapy given with or without immunotherapy. Sometimes radiation therapy is included as well.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses powerful, high-energy X-rays to target DNA in cancer cells to keep them from growing. It is given through a machine that aims radiation at cancer from outside the body.

For people with limited-stage SCLC, radiation is often given at the same time as chemotherapy.

For people with extensive-stage SCLC, radiation can be given after chemotherapy courses are complete. This may also be done for people with limited-stage SCLC if the healthcare team decides it is necessary.


Immunotherapy may be a treatment option for people with extensive-stage SCLC. It works with the immune system to find and attack cancer. It also may affect healthy cells. For many people with extensive-stage SCLC, chemotherapy along with immunotherapy may be the first treatment. Once the initial treatment is complete, immunotherapy may be continued alone as a maintenance therapy.

There are different immunotherapy medicines that can treat SCLC, so be sure to ask your healthcare team about your options. If you have extensive-stage SCLC, there is an immunotherapy treatment option that may be right for you.

Immunotherapy may attack healthy cells. Side effects can be serious. Talk with your healthcare team about what to expect during treatment.

Palliative Care

Palliative care, sometimes called supportive care, is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and others to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life for people who are diagnosed and their loved ones. Palliative care is sometimes confused with hospice care, and it’s important to realize the two are not the same. Palliative care is recommended for any point along the cancer journey, and addresses physical, emotional, spiritual and practical needs.

A palliative care team may be able to help provide relief from side effects, as well as comfort and support, so be sure to ask your team about this service.

Side Effects

When starting any new cancer treatment, it’s normal to want to know what the side effects will be, and how they may impact your life and the lives of your loved ones. Some side effects can be potentially serious or life-threatening. Listen carefully as your healthcare team shares what you may expect and what to watch out for. Always talk with your doctor if you are experiencing a side effect.

Remember that your treatment team is there to guide you and answer your questions, so never hesitate to ask about what’s on your mind. If you do experience side effects from treatment, talking to your team is the best way to understand how they should be handled. Even if you aren’t sure if what you are experiencing is a side effect of treatment, it is helpful to write it down and ask your treatment team.