The Connection Between Lung Cancer and COPD

Lung cancer and COPD are serious health conditions that affect the lungs. And it’s possible for a person to have both.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer are serious conditions that lead to hundreds of thousands American deaths annually. Smoking is a significant risk factor for both, but their connection goes further than tobacco use. People with COPD have much higher odds of developing lung cancer, and many lung cancer patients have coexisting COPD.

So, what is COPD exactly? How is it linked to lung cancer? And what can your healthcare provider (HCP) do to ensure your best possible outcome if you have both conditions?

What is COPD?
COPD is a chronic, progressive disease characterized by a decline in lung function that makes it difficult to breathe. There are two main types. The first, emphysema, occurs when your lungs’ air sacs are damaged. The second, chronic bronchitis, is inflammation of the lung(s) that causes excess mucus production, wheezing breath, and difficulty breathing, among other symptoms. Most people with COPD have symptoms of both conditions.

Smoking is the top risk factor for developing COPD; about 90 percent of patients have smoked before. It’s believed COPD is underdiagnosed and often misdiagnosed; many people with the disease don’t know they have it.

What is lung cancer?
Lung cancer occurs when abnormal cells in your lung(s) grow out of control. There are two primary types of the disease. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) accounts for 80 to 85 percent of cases, while small cell lung cancer (SCLC) makes up 10 to 15 percent.

As with COPD, the biggest risk factor for lung cancer is smoking. Compared to non-smokers, those who light up are 15 to 30 times more likely to develop or die of lung cancer.

How COPD and lung cancer overlap
Annually, about 1 percent of COPD patients are diagnosed with lung cancer. Having COPD increases your chances significantly‚ and the more severe the COPD, the higher the risk. What’s more, a considerable proportion of those with lung cancer—by some estimates, 40 to 70 percent—also have COPD, though they may not be aware.

While smoking is related to both diseases, COPD is an independent risk factor for lung cancer; having it increases your cancer chances, whether or not you smoke. This may be for a number of different reasons. Among others:

  • The inflammation characteristic to COPD could be linked to lung cancer development.
  • COPD damages certain parts of the lungs that may make your airways more vulnerable to carcinogens.
  • A genetic predisposition towards both diseases could also be a factor.

Lung cancer patients with COPD have a worse prognosis than patients without COPD. This is partly due to quality-of-life issues and reduced pulmonary function. COPD can also interfere with treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. As a result, some research has found COPD patients have a lower five-year survival rate for lung cancer.

Tips for lung health
If you have COPD, speak with your HCP about the increased risk of lung cancer. They can help you learn about early symptoms, some of which may overlap with those of COPD, like shortness of breath and chronic coughing. They can also discuss the possibility of lung cancer screenings, especially if you’re a long-time or heavier smoker, or already have symptoms.

For those with COPD and lung cancer, your provider(s) should work to manage both diseases. They can also help you quit smoking, one of the best things you can do for either condition—at any point—as well as your overall health.

Medically reviewed in July 2019.

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