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Prophylactic cranial irradiation for patients with small cell lung cancer

Elizabeth H Baldini, MD, MPH
Section Editors
Rogerio C Lilenbaum, MD, FACP
Steven E Schild, MD
Deputy Editor
Sadhna R Vora, MD


The natural history of small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is one of rapid tumor growth and early dissemination. Because of this, the therapeutic approach is different from that used for patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Although the tumor, node, metastasis (TNM) staging system used for NSCLC is also suggested for SCLC, patients with SCLC are typically divided into those with limited stage versus extensive stage disease. (See "Tumor, Node, Metastasis (TNM) staging system for lung cancer".)

Limited stage disease is defined as disease confined to one hemithorax (ie, disease which can be included in a "tolerable" radiation field). About one-third of patients present with limited disease, although many of these patients probably already have subclinical metastatic disease.

Chemotherapy is an integral component of the treatment of patients with limited stage SCLC because of the high likelihood of early dissemination, including the minority of patients without mediastinal involvement who may be candidates for initial surgical resection. In addition, radiation therapy (RT) is important because local tumor progression occurs in up to 80 percent of patients with limited stage disease treated with chemotherapy alone [1]. (See "Limited stage small cell lung cancer: Initial management".)

Brain metastases are a frequent problem in patients with SCLC, and brain imaging (preferably MRI) is indicated for patients who present with either limited or extensive stage disease [2]. (See "Pathobiology and staging of small cell carcinoma of the lung", section on 'Staging'.)

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Literature review current through: Oct 2017. | This topic last updated: Oct 10, 2017.
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