Surgery for limited-stage small-cell lung cancer

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Apr 21;4(4):CD011917. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011917.pub2.


Background: Current treatment guidelines for limited-stage small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) recommend concomitant platinum-based chemo-radiotherapy plus prophylactic cranial irradiation, based on the premise that SCLC disseminates early, and is chemosensitive. However, although there is usually a favourable initial response, relapse is common and the cure rate for limited-stage SCLC remains relatively poor. Some recent clinical practice guidelines have recommended surgery for stage 1 (limited) SCLC followed by adjuvant chemotherapy, but this recommendation is largely based on the findings of observational studies.

Objectives: To determine whether, in patients with limited-stage SCLC, surgical resection of cancer improves overall survival and treatment-related deaths compared with radiotherapy or chemotherapy, or a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, or best supportive care.

Search methods: We performed searches on CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, and Web of Science up to 11 January 2017. We handsearched review articles, clinical trial registries, and reference lists of retrieved articles.

Selection criteria: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) with adults diagnosed with limited-stage SCLC, confirmed by cytology or histology, and radiological assessment, considered medically suitable for resection and radical radiotherapy, which randomised participants to surgery versus any other intervention.

Data collection and analysis: We imported studies identified by the search into a reference manager database. We retrieved the full-text version of relevant studies, and two review authors independently extracted data. The primary outcome measures were overall survival and treatment-related deaths; and secondary outcome measures included loco-regional progression, quality of life, and adverse events.

Main results: We included three trials with 330 participants. We judged the quality of the evidence as very low for all the outcomes. The quality of the data was limited by the lack of complete outcome reporting, unclear risk of bias in the methods in which the studies were conducted, and the age of the studies (> 20 years). The methods of cancer staging and types of surgical procedures, which do not reflect current practice, reduced our confidence in the estimation of the effect.Two studies compared surgery to radiation therapy, and in one study chemotherapy was administered to both arms. One study administered initial chemotherapy, then responders were randomised to surgery versus control; following, both groups underwent chest and whole brain irradiation.Due to the clinical heterogeneity of the trials, we were unable to pool results for meta-analysis.All three studies reported overall survival. One study reported a mean overall survival of 199 days in the surgical arm, compared to 300 days in the radiotherapy arm (P = 0.04). One study reported overall survival as 4% in the surgical arm, compared to 10% in the radiotherapy arm at two years. Conversely, one study reported overall survival at two years as 52% in the surgical arm, compared to 18% in the radiotherapy arm. However this difference was not statistically significant (P = 0.12).One study reported early postoperative mortality as 7% for the surgical arm, compared to 0% mortality in the radiotherapy arm. One study reported the difference in mean degree of dyspnoea as -1.2 comparing surgical intervention to radiotherapy, indicating that participants undergoing radiotherapy are likely to experience more dyspnoea. This was measured using a non-validated scale.

Authors' conclusions: Evidence from currently available RCTs does not support a role for surgical resection in the management of limited-stage small-cell lung cancer; however our conclusions are limited by the quality of the available evidence and the lack of contemporary data. The results of the trials included in this review may not be generalisable to patients with clinical stage 1 small-cell lung cancer carefully staged using contemporary staging methods. Although some guidelines currently recommend surgical resection in clinical stage 1 small-cell lung cancer, prospective randomised controlled trials are needed to determine if there is any benefit in terms of short- and long-term mortality and quality of life compared with chemo-radiotherapy alone.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Induction Chemotherapy / methods
  • Lung Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology
  • Lung Neoplasms / radiotherapy
  • Lung Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Small Cell Lung Carcinoma / drug therapy
  • Small Cell Lung Carcinoma / pathology
  • Small Cell Lung Carcinoma / radiotherapy
  • Small Cell Lung Carcinoma / surgery*
  • Survival Rate


  • Antineoplastic Agents