Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) represents approximately 13% of all lung cancer diagnoses and the incidence has reduced over the last 20 years. Treatment of SCLC remains challenging because of its rapid growth, early dissemination and development of drug resistance during the course of the disease.
Chemotherapy remains the cornerstone of treatment for limited (LD) and extensive disease (ED), with concurrent chemotherapy and radical thoracic radiotherapy representing the best treatment option for fit patients with LD. Platinum-based chemotherapy is the treatment of choice in fit patients with good organ function, and the radiosensitizing effect of cisplatin is critically important for concurrent chemoradiotherapy in LD. Anthracycline-containing regimens represent a viable alternative for patients where platinum-based chemotherapy is contraindicated.
Patients who relapse or progress after first-line chemotherapy have a very poor prognosis. Second-line therapy may produce a modest clinical benefit. Maintenance chemotherapy has not been shown to convincingly improve outcomes for SCLC. A number of targeted agents have been investigated in LD and ED, mostly in unselected populations, with disappointing results. Prophylactic cranial irradiation has been shown to reduce the incidence of brain metastases and prolong survival for both LD and ED without negative impact on quality of life (QOL) and cognitive function. Ongoing trials will shed some light on the impact of thoracic radiotherapy on QOL, symptom control and survival in ED SCLC patients who benefitted from first-line chemotherapy.