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Dustin Diamond, best known for his role as Screech Powers on “Saved By The Bell,” passed away Monday, just weeks after revealing a stage 4 small cell lung cancer (SCLC) diagnosis. He was 44.

SCLC and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) are the two most common forms of lung cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, SCLC the is the less common of the two, only accounting for about 15% of all lung cancer cases.

Diamond claimed that he has never been a smoker, and suspects that mold or asbestos could be to blame. According to Dr. Alberto Chiappori, a senior member of Moffitt Cancer Canter’s Thoracic Oncology program, Diamond falls into a rare group.

“It is very unusual that small cell lung cancer will occur in patients who are never smokers,” said Chiappori. “It is one of the most closely associated cancers to tobacco consumption.”

It is very unusual that small cell lung cancer will occur in patients who are never smokers. It is one of the most closely associated cancers to tobacco consumption.
Dr. Alberto Chiappori

Chiappori says the majority of patients’ cancer will have already spread by the time they are diagnosed with SCLC. It’s a big reason why so many patients are stage 3 or 4 by the time the disease is found.

According to reports, Diamond was hospitalized for "pain all over his body and a general sense of unease." Lung cancer usually doesn’t show any signs until later stages of the disease.

Common symptoms include:

  • Persistent fever
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Bone pain
  • Swelling in the face, neck or arms
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Neurological symptoms, such as memory loss
  • Pain in the chest, shoulders or back

For decades, the only treatment for SCLC has been chemotherapy, which Diamond had been reportedly receiving. Chiappori said it’s rare that it will keep the cancer under control for more than four to six months. Once the cancer relapses, the disease begins to take over. That’s when the prognosis is very serious. The average five-year survival rate of patients with an extensive diagnosis is about 6%.

“We see patients who are very symptomatic, weight loss, pain, shortness of breath, cough,” Chiappori said. “You treat them with chemotherapy and they’re already feeling better after just one cycle. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last very long. You may be able to cure 20% to 25% of patients with limited SCLC, but that’s only 15% to 20% of all small cell lung cancer patients.”

In recent years the addition of immunotherapy has offered some, albeit limited, success.

“It has improved the odds a little bit,” Chiappori said. “It’s not much, but it’s better than zero and proves that we can accomplish improvements with continued research.”