Lung Cancer - Small Cell: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

Risk Factors and Prevention

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing small cell lung cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices. Most often, small cell lung cancer (SCLC) occurs in people who smoke or in those who have smoked in the past. However, people who do not smoke can also develop lung cancer, so it is important for all people to learn about the risk factors and signs and symptoms of SCLC.

The following factor may raise a person’s risk of developing SCLC:

  • Tobacco. Tobacco smoke damages cells in the lungs, causing the cells to grow abnormally. The risk that smoking will lead to cancer is higher for people who smoke heavily and/or for a long time. Regular exposure to smoke from someone else’s cigarettes, cigars, or pipes can increase a person’s risk of SCLC, even if that person does not smoke. This is called environmental or “secondhand” tobacco smoke.


Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause SCLC, including ways to prevent it. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent SCLC, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your health care team for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

The most important way to prevent SCLC is to avoid tobacco smoke. People who never smoke have the lowest risk of SCLC. People who smoke can reduce their risk of SCLC by stopping smoking, although their risk of SCLC will still be higher than people who never smoked.

Attempts to prevent lung cancer with vitamins or other treatments have not worked. For instance, beta-carotene, a drug related to vitamin A, has been tested for the prevention of lung cancer. It did not reduce the risk of cancer. In people who continued to smoke, beta-carotene actually increased the risk of lung cancer.

The next section in this guide is Screening. It explains how tests may find cancer before signs or symptoms appear. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.