To assess the role of operation in the treatment and prevention of local recurrence in limited small cell lung cancer, we analyzed retrospectively 35 patients undergoing surgical resection for small cell lung cancer between 1976 and 1982. Twenty-eight patients underwent resection for presumed non-small cell histology. Seven later patients had planned combined modality therapy consisting of chemotherapy and prophylactic cranial irradiation followed by surgical resection and irradiation to the primary site. Twenty-four patients received adjuvant postoperative chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. All patients have been treated and followed up for a minimum of 1 year. There were 19 patients in Stage I and 16 in Stages II and III. In 15 patients, relapse has occurred. The commonest site of first relapse was brain (7/15). Five of these patients had received prophylactic cranial irradiation. In only two patients was there a relapse locally in the hemithorax and/or mediastinum--one with NO disease and one with N1 disease. No local recurrence was noted in six patients with N2 disease. Only two relapses have occurred beyond 1 year--both in brain. In those patients surviving more than 2 years, no relapses have occurred. The median survival time for patients with Stage I disease is 158 weeks and for those with Stages II and III, 92.4 weeks. The median survival time for the whole group is 92.4 weeks with a projected 5 year survival rate of 24%. It appears that surgical resection may help to prevent local recurrence in small cell lung cancer, even in N1 and N2 disease. In our series, projected 5 year survival rates are similar to those seen in the surgical treatment of patients with non-small cell lung cancer. The eventual role of operation in the prevention of local recurrence and improvement in overall survival of limited small cell lung cancer awaits prospective randomized trials.