Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in the United States, with approximately 135,000 men and women dying each year. While much has been learned about the etiologic risk factors, less progress has been made in therapy. Five-year survival rates remain at <10%. However, there has been some progress in the therapy of one histological subtype of lung cancer, small cell lung cancer. Totaling around 20% of lung cancer cases, small cell lung cancer is distinct from the other histologic subtypes in its biologic behavior and responsiveness to therapy. In the 1960s, the median survival for patients with small cell lung cancer was approximately 3 months. With combination chemotherapy and radiotherapy median survivals now range from 1 to 2 years, and there is evidence for a curative potential since approximately 10% of patients who initially present with limited disease survive >2 years. The unique clinical aspects of this histological subtype potentially relate to its underlying cell of origin. This behavior is reflected in the numerous paraneoplastic syndromes that frequently accompany small cell lung cancer. Its propensity for early dissemination have made staging the extent of disease an important part of the clinical evaluation. Since small cell lung cancer is sensitive to both chemotherapy and radiation therapy, there have been multiple clinical trials evaluating drug/radiotherapy combinations. This article will briefly describe the unique aspects of small cell lung cancer as opposed to other histological subtypes of lung cancer and give an overview of the current clinical approach and treatment of this disease.
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