How We Treat Small Cell Lung Cancer

Our Treatment Approach

Timely Appointments

Patients with either suspected or proven lung cancer should be seen as soon as possible for timely diagnosis and treatment.

Our new patient coordinators will work with you quickly to schedule appointments with our specialists.

Phone: 877-442-3324
Online: Complete the Appointment Request Form

Treatment for small cell lung cancer is provided through the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center and the Division of Thoracic Surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Our team of medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists, pathologists, and radiologists — all specialized lung cancer experts — work together to determine the right choices for your individual treatment. Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or any combination of all three. You will also have access to an array of support programs and services.

Collaboration is the key to success. Our surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists and pathologists are lung cancer experts working together in a unique, collaborative model that focuses exclusively on the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. Our staff members meet daily as a group to evaluate the most effective options for each patient.

Because it is often asymptomatic, small cell lung cancer is rarely discovered in its earliest stages, and so it is unlikely that removal of tumors will have a significant impact on the progress of your cancer. Instead of surgery, our clinicians usually recommend chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy — treatments which have the potential to target cancer cells throughout your body.

However, there are occasional early small cell lung cancers that are addressed best by surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. With the increasing prevalence of CT-based screening, we have seen a rise in the number of early small cell cancers that respond well to surgery.

Depending on the stage of the disease, here are ways we treat small cell lung cancer:

  • In very early limited stage disease, we often treat patients with minimally invasive surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • In limited stage disease, we generally treat patients with a combination of chemotherapy and chest radiation therapy.
  • In extensive stage disease, treatment is with chemotherapy alone. This is because radiation therapy targets just one area of the body, and would thus be ineffective in treating cancer that has spread throughout the body. In extensive small cell lung cancer, chemotherapy is used to reduce or stabilize the cancer in the hopes of extending as well as improving the quality of life.
  • Whether small cell lung cancer is limited or extensive, it can potentially spread to the brain. Your treatment may include therapies to prevent this possibility.

Medical Oncology and Chemotherapy

Medical oncologists administer chemotherapy, a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Our oncologists use their extensive expertise to determine the right care plan for each patient. In the case of limited small cell lung cancer, chemotherapy will be part of a therapeutic plan aimed at controlling and potentially curing the disease. In the case of extensive small cell lung cancer, chemotherapy may extend life while reducing pain or symptoms.

Chemotherapy treatment for small cell lung cancer involves infusion through a tube. The choice of specific drugs to be administered will be based on your individual needs.

  • At the first meeting, we address difficult symptoms you may be experiencing including pain, shortness of breath, and emotional distress. We also will arrange meetings with our extensive support services staff including palliative care, nutrition, and social work services.
  • We provide efficient and rapid processes to begin treatment as soon as possible through coordination of diagnostic testing, evaluation, and diagnosis with the entire team.
  • We have experience with the latest therapies and have the expertise to tailor these therapies to each patient for the greatest likelihood of success.

Clinical Trials Questions?


Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials explore if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment. Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. We are also working hard to understand the basic biology of this disease in order to develop more effective treatments.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a non-invasive form of cancer treatment that uses various forms of radiation to kill cancer cells. Our thoracic radiation oncologists specialize in radiation therapy techniques that effectively target lung cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue. In the case of small cell lung cancer, radiation therapy has three potential roles. Radiation therapy:

  • Is given in conjunction with chemotherapy with the goal of curing limited stage small cell lung cancer.
  • Is given to palliate (relieve) symptoms from extensive stage small cell lung cancer.
  • May be given to prevent growth of cancer in the brain in both limited and extensive stage small cell lung cancer.

Our radiation oncologists use the most advanced tools for radiation therapy. Depending on your individual needs, treatment may be administered through one of several techniques.

  • Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) involves daily imaging to ensure the tumor is centered within the radiation beams for each treatment.
  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) or 3D-conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT) both involve sophisticated computerized planning techniques to maximize delivery of radiation to the tumor while sparing nearby healthy tissues.


Our thoracic surgeons have pioneered the use of new surgical techniques, and continue to develop innovative approaches to achieving the best outcomes for lung cancer patients. Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center is home to one of the few dedicated thoracic surgery intensive care units in the country, with specialized nursing staff and state-of-the-art healthcare resources.

In very early limited stage small cell lung cancer, we treat the cancer through minimally invasive thoracic surgery. This type of chest surgery uses small incisions and specialized instruments with video-scopes to guide the surgical process. This procedure is called VATS (video-assisted thoracic surgery). Benefits of this procedure include reduced risk of infection, less bleeding and faster recovery time.

In-Patient Care

We treat the whole person, not just the disease.

Patients requiring surgery for lung cancer are cared for by a dedicated team of thoracic specialists who are part of our specialized surgical oncology team. Our medical, nursing, and support staff all have special expertise in working with patients with these cancers — providing treatment and assisting each patient through a medically and emotionally challenging time.

Surgery takes place in the operating rooms at Brigham and Women's Hospital, whose lung cancer surgery program is recognized widely as one of the best in the country. Post-surgical care and other inpatient care are provided by Dana-Farber and Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Most of our outpatient care takes place at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Infusion therapy is provided at the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care, one of the most advanced outpatient centers in the country, designed with the input of patients and families to meet their specific needs.

Find out more about your hospital stay at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Symptom Management

At the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology, our specialists work exclusively with patients who are coping with lung cancer and related diagnoses. Our multidisciplinary team includes program nurses, infusion (chemotherapy) nurses, nutritionists, social workers and others to help you to live fully while receiving treatment.

If you have questions or concerns during the day, our triage nurse can answer your questions. If you have symptoms or medical issues during non-office hours, a nurse practitioner will answer your questions or help you connect with your doctor. Other support services available through our Center include:

  • Help with non-emergency concerns. Our on-call nursing staff can provide you with help in managing issues, such as skin rashes (common with lung cancer treatment) and shortness of breath.
  • Pain management. Our palliative care specialists work with your doctors to provide treatment.
  • Emotional and psychosocial support. Our adult psychosocial oncology team helps lung cancer patients and their families cope with emotional issues that often accompany a cancer diagnosis, and maintain the best quality of life during and after treatment.
  • Help in finding wigs, hats, and other items. Friends' Place boutique helps you cope with hair loss and other treatment side effects.
  • Recovery of strength and stamina. Our on-call nurses will help you to set up appropriate and convenient post-treatment occupational or physical therapy, as well as integrative therapies to ease stress and fatigue.
  • Home care services. We can help you set up your home with oxygen, skilled nursing, or, if appropriate, hospice care.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Support Services and Follow-Up Care

Patients diagnosed with lung cancer have a great deal to manage, from emotional distress to practical issues, such as handling insurance paperwork, finding lodging, and connecting with valet parking services. Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center can help you navigate through your cancer journey.

Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center provides a wide range of support programs, resources and survivorship care for our patients with lung cancer. These programs and resources can help you and your family address issues that you may face as a result of your cancer, or its treatment. Below are some of our selected programs and services.

Counseling and Social Work

Our licensed social workers are here to help adult patients and their loved ones face the many new concerns and anxieties following a cancer diagnosis, offering emotional support and assistance with obtaining needed resources.

Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies

Integrative therapies, also known as complementary therapies, range from acupuncture and massage to nutritional guidance and music therapy. Patients treated at the Zakim Center credit its services with easing nausea, improving circulation, and reducing pain, stress, and anxiety associated with cancer treatment.

Nutrition Consultation

Our nutritionists are registered dietitians who can assist you in planning an optimal diet during any stage of your cancer journey, coping with any side effects you may experience, and answering your questions about the latest findings on cancer and nutrition.

Spiritual Care

Through all stages of cancer treatment and survivorship, our Spiritual Care staff is available 24 hours a day to provide emotional and spiritual support for patients and their family members.

Other Support Services

Explore additional programs and services for our patients and their families at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Follow-up and Survivorship Care

Follow-up services are provided through Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Adult Survivorship Program, a member of the LIVESTRONG Survivorship Center of Excellence Network. The Adult Survivorship Program provides clinical care and services for adult-onset cancer survivors, including research that focuses on finding solutions to key problems adult survivors may face after cancer treatment.

Our physicians, nurses, researchers, and psychologists are experts in survivorship, and will work with you and your primary care physician to create a plan for living well beyond cancer.

Second Opinions

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Second Opinions

Our diagnostic team provides second opinions, including for challenging or difficult cases. We are happy to consult with you, your primary care physician, or other specialists. Consider a second opinion for:

  • Confirmation of a diagnosis
  • An evaluation of an uncommon presentation
  • Details on the type and stage of cancer
  • Treatment options
  • Clinical trials

Phone: 877-442-3324
Online: Complete the Appointment Request Form
If you cannot travel to Boston in person, you can take advantage of our Online Second Opinion service

For Referring Physicians

Because you, the referring physician, are an integral part of your patient's care team, we are committed to collaborating with you to provide the best care for your patient.