Small Cell Lung Cancer Survival Rates

Even with advanced treatment options, the small cell lung cancer (SCLC) survival rate is not as good as it is with other types of lung cancer. SCLC can grow and spread quickly. And according to statistics, the likelihood of living for five years after you've been diagnosed with SCLC is between 3% and 27%, depending on how advanced the cancer is when it's found.

Hearing this and the fact that SCLC is not usually not curable is difficult. But the disease is always treatable, and newer approaches have improved patients' ability to manage the disease and live longer than before.

Doctor listening to patient's lungs
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Stages of Small Cell Lung Cancer

SCLC survival rates depend, in large part, on the stage of cancer:

More advanced small cell lung cancer cases have poorer survival rates than earlier-stage SCLC cases.

SCLC tends to be more aggressive than the most common form of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Because it grows rapidly and often spreads before there are even symptoms of disease, most people are not diagnosed with SCLC until it is at an advanced stage.

Approximately 60% to 70% of people are already at the extensive stage of SCLC at the time of their diagnosis.

Statistics

Over the past several years, SCLC survival rates have improved with the incorporation of radiation therapy into treatment plans. Chemotherapy with radiation therapy, which uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors, is considered the standard course of care for SCLC patients.

This combined treatment regimen has been shown to improve survival by about 5% over chemotherapy alone.

Prophylactic cranial radiation (PCI) is a form of preventative radiation therapy administered to the head. It kills cells that may have already spread to the cranial area (a common complication with SCLC) but are unable to be detected with scans. PCI is another breakthrough that is offering SCLC patients a chance to live longer, fuller lives.

That is all very good news that shows that small cell lung cancer may respond very well to initial treatment. Unfortunately, though, the long-term prognosis for the disease is still very poor.

Five-Year Survival Rates

Survival rates for cancer are not presented by stage. Rather, the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER) database, maintained by the National Cancer Institute, tracks five-year survival rates for SCLC based on how far the cancer has spread.

These divisions break down into four basic categories:

  • Localized: Cancer is limited to the area where it originated and has not spread.
  • Regional: Tumors have spread to nearby lymph nodes, tissues, or organs.
  • Distant: Tumors have spread to distant parts of the body.
  • Unknown: Not enough information is available to figure out what stage the cancer is at.

Researchers look at the survival rates over several decades.

5-Year Survival Rate for SCLC (1975 through 2016)
All Stages 6.5%
Localized 27.2%
Regionalized 16.4%
Distant 2.9%
Unstaged/Unknown 8.1%

These numbers are good to know, but keep in mind that poorer outcomes from the earlier decades surveyed influence these rates significantly. Mortality rates have been decreasing since the 1970s, with the rate dropping faster in recent years.

That means that the odds of a five-year survival are better now than this long-view summary shows.

Median Survival Rate

Another statistic that your doctor may refer to is the median survival rate. This is the amount of time at which 50% of people with a condition will have died and 50% are still alive.

For patients with limited-stage SCLC, the median survival is 16 to 24 months; for extensive-stage SCLC, the median survival is six to 12 months.

Variables That Affect Survival

While long-term disease-free survival is rare after a diagnosis of small cell lung cancer, it is possible. At the very least, there is a chance to enjoy a longer life than the statistics predict.

The possibility of a better small cell lung cancer prognosis depends on variables that differ from person to person.

Some of the variables that impact SCLC patients include:

  • The stage and spread of cancer: Limited stage SCLC has a better chance for long-term survival than extensive-stage SCLC. Spread to the brain and liver, in particular, are associated with poorer prognoses.
  • Your age: Younger people tend to live longer than older adults after their diagnosis.
  • Your sex: Survival rates are higher for women at each stage of the disease.
  • Your general health when diagnosed: Being healthy overall (known as performance status) is associated with longer survival and a better ability to withstand life-saving treatments.
  • Pre-existing health conditions: Underlying problems such as emphysema may lower small cell lung cancer survival.
  • Complications of lung cancer: Issues such as blood clots can lower lung cancer survival.
  • Level of LDH or ALK: An increased level of the substances lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) or alkaline phosphatase (ALK), or a low level of sodium in your blood, is associated with poorer survival.
  • Smoking: Continued smoking after a diagnosis of small cell lung cancer likely lowers survival.

Beyond the Numbers

As you review these statistics, know that they only tell part of the story. There are many factors that impact your prognosis, some of which you can take control of immediately.

There are survival stories. You may be one of them. Find out about how to maintain your health and become your own advocate to ensure you have the opportunity to take advantage of the best treatment options available.

A Word From Verywell

While fewer new therapies have been found to treat small cell lung cancer compared to non-small cell lung cancer, things are changing. Several treatments are currently being evaluated in clinical trials, and these offer hope that small cell lung cancer survival will improve in the future.

To fight this disease aggressively, you should look into participating in these trials, which may include testing targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and combinations of treatments.

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