Small cell lung cancer: time to diagnosis and treatment

South Med J. 2012 Aug;105(8):418-23. doi: 10.1097/SMJ.0b013e3182601198.


Objectives: Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is the most rapidly progressive form of lung cancer, and delays in treatment may increase the tumor burden. We determined the time from abnormal radiograph to diagnosis and treatment for patients with SCLC and investigated the effect of emergent presentation, stage, radiographic findings, and race on these measures and survival.

Methods: Retrospective analysis of clinical data for 45 consecutive evaluable patients at a single institution diagnosed as having SCLC.

Results: Median time from first abnormal radiograph to tissue diagnosis was 10 days and time from first abnormal radiograph to initiation of treatment was 35 days. Emergency department presentation led to earlier diagnosis compared with the clinic (3 vs 21 days), with a trend toward earlier treatment (15 vs 39 days; P = 0.057). No significant effect of radiographic findings, disease stage, or race was observed from time to diagnosis or treatment. Forty-three patients (96%) died, with a median survival time from initial abnormal radiograph to death of 375 days. Survival was longer for patients with limited stage disease (619 vs 230 days), but it was not significantly affected by emergent presentation, radiographic findings, or race. Consistent with the aggressive behavior of SCLC, 10 patients (22%) had a normal radiograph within 6 months prediagnosis, and 7 of these had extensive disease.

Conclusions: The median time from abnormal radiograph to initiation of treatment for SCLC in our single-center study overlapped with the expected doubling time for this malignancy and likely allowed a preventable increase in tumor burden.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Delayed Diagnosis*
  • Early Detection of Cancer*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Louisiana
  • Lung Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology
  • Lung Neoplasms / therapy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prognosis
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Small Cell Lung Carcinoma / diagnosis*
  • Small Cell Lung Carcinoma / pathology
  • Small Cell Lung Carcinoma / therapy
  • Survival Analysis
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed*