What is Small Cell Carcinoma of the Lung, the Cancer Dustin Diamond Died Of?

Freepik.com. (brgfx)

It’s always a shock when you hear that someone relatively young develops cancer. Dustin Diamond, the actor and comedian who acted in Saved by the Bell, died several weeks after learning he had stage 4 small cell carcinoma of the lung. It must have come as a shock to people who knew him, especially since he appeared relatively healthy!

Small cell carcinoma of the lung has a grim prognosis, and the fact that he was stage 4 suggests that his cancer was diagnosed at a late stage, where it had already spread outside the lungs to other organs such as the liver or brain. According to reports, Dustin Diamond’s cancer had spread to multiple areas of his body.

You might wonder what small cell carcinoma of the lung is and whether, like other lung cancers, it occurs mainly in smokers. Let’s take a closer look at what this type of cancer is and its symptoms and prognosis are.

What is Small Cell Carcinoma of the Lung?

Small cell carcinoma is a type of cancer that affects neuroendocrine cells in the lungs, cells that produce a variety of chemicals and hormones. What makes this form of lung cancer unique is the affected neuroendocrine cells produce hormones that affect other parts of the body removed from the lungs, a syndrome called the paraneoplastic syndrome.

Neuroendocrine cells in the lungs in small cell cancer produce hormones that affect fluid balance, stress hormones, and brain and muscle function. Therefore, it can produce a variety of symptoms.

Along with the typical symptoms you use with lung cancer, such as shortness of breath, cough, chest tightness, and coughing up blood, people with small cell carcinoma may have symptoms like:

  • Skin flushing and sweating
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Skin flushing
  • Weight loss
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Anxiety

These symptoms are caused by neuroendocrine hormones entering the bloodstream and causing widespread disruptions. Plus, small cell carcinoma can quickly invade other tissues, including the lymph system, bones, liver, or travel via the bloodstream to the brain.

How Serious is Small Cell Lung Cancer?

Most forms of lung cancer don’t have a good prognosis, usually because they don’t cause symptoms in the early stage, delaying diagnosis and treatment. This is true of small cell lung cancer too. According to Medscape Family Medicine, 60 to 70% of people with this form of cancer have disease that’s already spread to other sites at the time of diagnosis, and once it has spread, it’s difficult to cure.

What about chemo? Chemotherapy can prolong survival by an average of 7 months, although the odds of being alive at 5 years are low at only 5%. Prognosis is a bit more optimistic, with survival rates of 17 months or longer when the cancer is still confined to the lungs.

Small Cell Carcinoma and Smoking

According to The Sun, Dustin Diamond denied smoking and believed his small cell lung cancer came from exposure to mold and asbestos from the hotels he stayed in during his acting career. Asbestos is linked with a type of lung cancer called mesothelioma, which affects the pleura, the lining that surrounds the lungs.

Despite Dustin Diamond denying a history of smoking, 98% of people who develop this form of lung cancer have a history of smoking. People who exposed to uranium or radon gas at home or in the workplace are also at greater risk of developing small cell cancer of the lung.

Why is this important? Many people have high levels of radon, an odorless and tasteless gas, in their homes and aren’t aware of it. It’s easy to find out by testing your home for radon using a test kit. If you smoke and have radon in your home, it increases the risk of developing all forms of lung cancer more than smoking or radon alone.

Age is another risk factor for small cell cancer of the lung. It’s uncommon for people to develop small cell cancer before the age of 40, and Dustin Diamond was surprisingly young when he developed it, age 44. It’s most common in men and women between the ages of 60 and 80.

The Bottom Line

As bleak as the prognosis for small cell cancer of the lung is, there is some good news. As rates of smoking have declined, it’s less common than it once was. At one time, it comprised almost 25% of all lung cancers but now accounts for only 13% of all lung cancer diagnosed. That’s good news! And it’s more reason not to smoke since smoking is a strong risk factor.

The Bottom Line

The best way to lower your risk of small cell cancer of the lung is to not smoke or kick the habit if you already do. Also, check your home for radon, especially if you smoke cigarettes, as it increases the risk of lung cancer of all types, especially in smokers.

There’s also some evidence that indoor and outdoor air pollution increases the risk of lung diseases, including some types of lung cancer. So, make sure the air you breathe is as clean as possible and it’s smoke-free!


  • TheSun.co.uk. “Health Woes: Did Dustin Diamond Smoke?”
  • Medscape.com. “What is the prognosis of small cell lung cancer (SCLC)?”
  • Health.com. “Dustin Diamond Has Died of Stage 4 Lung Cancer Just Weeks After Starting Chemotherapy — Here’s What to Know”

I’m a family physician who believes in the power of lifestyle to transform health and prevent disease. Food is the best medicine!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store