Small Cell Brain Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prognosis

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Understanding Primary vs Metastasis

Tumors that originate in the brain are primary brain tumors. A metastatic brain tumor is the process of cells from a tumor in any part of the body traveling through the bloodstream to the brain. Small cell lung cancer accounts for the highest number of brain metastases, according to OncoLink from the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Upon microscopic examination of the brain lesion biopsy from a brain tumor that has metastasized from the lungs, the cells would appear as lung cancer cells.

Symptoms of Small Cell Cancer

Once small cell brain cancer is present, the cancer has already metastasized from the lungs to the brain. Symptoms of small cell lung cancer can include:

  • Cough
  • Bloody sputum
  • Chest pain
  • Poor appetite
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weakness

Once the cancer has metastasized to the brain, the symptoms can include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Weakness of extremities

Diagnosing Small Cell Cancer

Unfortunately, by the time small cell lung cancer is diagnosed, it frequently has already spread to the brain or some other part of the body. Some of the tests that may be performed to confirm small cell cancer and to look for metastasis include a bone scan, sputum test, MRI, CT scan and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. Lung biopsy may be performed in conjunction with a bronchoscopy, as an open lung biopsy, a CT scan-directed needle biopsy, or a pleural biopsy. There are no stages of small cell lung cancer. It is either limited, in which the cancer is contained within the chest, or extensive, in which the cancer has spread beyond the chest.

Treatment for Small Cell Brain Cancer

The first step in treating small cell brain cancer is to attack the origin. For instance, standard small cell lung cancer treatment includes the options of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and laser therapy. Controlling or removing the cancer is critical to the prognosis for treating the cancer in the brain. If the cancer is under control at its origin, brain surgery may be an option if the brain contains only one brain lesion. Treatment for the brain depends on the extent of metastasis. Brain radiation is an option; in fact, whole brain radiation therapy (WBRT) is an option given to some patients with a diagnosis of small cell lung cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, studies are ongoing to determine the effectiveness and suitability of radiosurgery in the treatment of metastatic brain tumors.


The prognosis for small cell brain cancer is poor at best, and depends on the following:

  • If the primary tumor can be removed or continues to grow
  • Your age and general health
  • The location and number of tumors in the brain
  • If the brain cancer can be removed or radiated

Comfort and safety measures are necessary to improve the quality of life, which is most often less than two years.


OncoLink from the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania: Overview of Brain Metastases and Available Treatments

National Cancer Institute: Adult Brain Tumors Treatment