Lung Cancer - Small Cell: Symptoms and Signs

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

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

People with small cell lung cancer (SCLC) may experience the following symptoms or signs. Symptoms are changes that you can feel in your body. Signs are changes in something measured, like by taking your blood pressure or doing a lab test. Together, symptoms and signs can help describe a medical problem. Sometimes people with SCLC do not have any of the symptoms and signs described below, but SCLC often causes these symptoms and they can 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

  • Fevers or recurrent pneumonia, an infection of the lung

The cause of a symptoms may be a 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 seen 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. The symptoms of metastases from SCLC vary depending on where the cancer has spread in the body.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. Managing symptoms may also 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.