Lung Cancer - Small Cell: Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2019

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. Use the menu to see other pages.

People with SCLC may experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes people with SCLC do not have any of these changes, but SCLC often causes these symptoms worsen over weeks or sometimes days. 

  • Fatigue

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Coughing up phlegm or mucus

  • Coughing up blood

  • Swelling of the neck or face

The cause of a symptoms may be a different medical condition that is not cancer, but if you are concerned about any changes you experience, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you have been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help figure out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

For people with SCLC who have no symptoms, the cancer may be noticed on a chest x-ray or CT scan performed for some other reason, such as checking for heart disease. Most people with SCLC are diagnosed when the tumor grows and causes symptoms, takes up space, or begins to cause problems with parts of the body near the lungs. A lung tumor may also cause fluid to build up in the lung or the space around the lung or push the air out of the lungs and cause the lung to collapse. If this happens, you may feel short of breath. This is because enough oxygen is not getting in the body and carbon dioxide is not leaving the body quickly enough.

SCLC can spread anywhere in the body through a process called metastasis. It most commonly spreads to the lymph nodes, other parts of the lungs, bones, brain, liver, and structures near the kidneys called the adrenal glands. Metastases from SCLC can cause:

  • More breathing difficulties

  • Bone pain

  • Abdominal or back pain

  • Headache

  • Weakness

  • Seizures

  • Speech difficulties

  • Rarely, a lung tumor can release hormones that cause problems such as low blood sodium levels or high blood calcium levels.

Symptoms such as fatigue, feeling out-of-sorts or unwell, and loss of appetite are not necessarily caused by metastases. Cancer anywhere in the body can cause a person to feel unwell in a general way. Loss of appetite can cause weight loss. Fatigue and weakness can further worsen a person’s ability to breathe.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may be called palliative care or supportive care. It is often started soon after diagnosis and continued throughout treatment. Be sure to talk with your health care team about the symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis. It explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.