What to know about COPD and lung cancer
Share on PinterestResearchers believe that there is a strong link between COPD and lung cancer.
Research consistently shows a clear link between COPD and lung cancer. People with COPD are more likely to develop lung cancer, and people with lung cancer are more likely to develop COPD.
Researchers do not fully understand why the two diseases have such a strong association, but they believe that several factors interact with one another to compound the risk of lung cancer in people with COPD.
Smoking is a significant risk factor for both conditions. Most people with COPD have smoked at some point during their lives, although females who do not smoke are more likely than male nonsmokers to develop COPD.
Researchers have developed several other theories to attempt to explain the link between the two conditions. They include:
- COPD-related lung damage: COPD significantly damages the lungs, and the damage gets progressively worse with time. This damage may raise lung cancer risk by increasing the likelihood of abnormal cell growth. Lung cancer risk is higher even among people with emphysema who have never smoked, pointing to the role of lung damage.
- Genetic susceptibility: Some people may be more genetically vulnerable to cigarette smoke. Researchers have identified several genes that may increase the risk of COPD or lung cancer in people who smoke.
- Inflammation: Research links chronic lung inflammation to both COPD and lung cancer. COPD further inflames the lungs, potentially elevating cancer risk. The repair process that inflammation triggers may further raise the risk of both COPD and cancer.
Despite this clear link, many people with COPD are unaware of their increased vulnerability to lung cancer.
A 2019 interview-based study of 40 people with COPD found that many of the participants were not aware that they were at higher risk for cancer. Most participants attributed changes in their symptoms to COPD, rather than seeking lung cancer screenings. People with COPD should report any changes in symptoms to their doctor.
Lung cancer is more treatable in the early stages. Even people with terminal cancer may live longer with early treatment. Therefore, a lack of awareness of the COPD-lung cancer link may shorten the lives of people with chronic respiratory disorders. Moreover, the symptoms of COPD may camouflage symptoms of lung cancer, making it more difficult to get an early diagnosis.
The Link Between COPD and Lung Cancer
Most people know lung cancer is a serious consequence of smoking. Fewer people, however, know the connection between lung cancer and a condition not necessarily related to lighting up — COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s a serious lung condition and a key risk factor for lung cancer. In fact, 40 to 70 percent of people with lung cancer also have COPD, even if they have never smoked a cigarette.
“Over the last 30 years, several epidemiological studies have shown that COPD is the single most important risk factor for lung cancer,” notes Brian W. Carlin, MD, a pulmonologist in Pittsburgh and chairman of the COPD Alliance, which provides clinicians and patients with information about COPD. “Recent studies suggest that the genetic risk factors that predispose smokers to COPD may overlap with those that predispose smokers to lung cancer. A majority of patients with lung cancer have underlying, but often undiagnosed, COPD.”
Understanding COPD and Lung Cancer
Generally speaking, COPD arises when airflow through the lungs becomes compromised, leading to progressive shortness of breath. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including too much mucus in the airways, and loss of elasticity in the airways and air sacs.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD affects more than 12 million Americans, and many others may not even know they have it.
COPD is most often found in people who are middle-aged or older. As the condition progresses, it can affect your ability to perform daily activities such as cooking and caring for yourself.
Lung cancer — both the small-cell and non-small-cell types — is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage, making it one of the most deadly forms of cancer. Treatment varies by type and stage but may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Part of the dilemma for doctors is the significant overlap between COPD symptoms and lung cancer symptoms. “Patients with both lung cancer and COPD often have cough and/or shortness of breath, the latter with exertion,” says Dr. Carlin. “Repeated episodes of pneumonia or bronchitis can be seen with either disease.”
Lung cancer does have some additional symptoms, such as coughing up blood, lack of appetite, and weight loss. Hoarseness, arm or chest wall pain, and swelling in the neck or face are other possible signs of the cancer.
COPD and Other Conditions
Health concerns for people with COPD symptoms span beyond lung cancer alone. COPD now ranks as one of the leading causes of death in the United States, according to Byron Thomashow, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York and member of the COPD Foundation, and Bill Clark, director of outreach programs and founder of the COPD Information Line of the COPD Foundation in Miami. They both add, however, that most of these deaths appear related to other conditions people have in addition to COPD — cardiovascular disease and lung cancer in particular — which makes it important to screen for these conditions too.
Other problems shown to affect people with COPD include arthritis, sinus disease, hypertension, diabetes, sleep apnea, depression, and osteoporosis.
Smoking Dangers, COPD, and Lung Cancer
The most important thing to remember is that COPD and lung cancer are both dangers of smoking — and quitting is key. If you haven’t developed significant impairment or disability from COPD, you may be able to prevent more serious consequences if you stop smoking now, Carlin says.
Early detection of COPD is also crucial. The COPD Alliance offers a set of five questions to help you determine whether you’re at risk. If you suspect you have COPD, talk to your doctor right away.
Blossoms on the trees, green grass, and sprouting flowers are all staples of the spring season, and just thinking about them makes you want to breathe in the fresh spring air. Of course, taking in those deep breaths of fresh air is easier for some than others. People with COPD or emphysema will find it more difficult to breathe than those with a healthy respiratory system. But what’s the difference between COPD and emphysema?
COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an overarching term that can include many different diseases of the lungs such as bronchiectasis, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. COPD interferes with normal breathing and is usually permanent and progressive, meaning that the disease stays with you your entire life and gets more severe over time. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can cause a number of symptoms including shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, chest pains, and the over-production of mucus in the airways.
The term COPD often includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
There are four different stages of COPD which are measured by forced expiratory volume, or the amount of air that your lungs displace during a forced breath. In the first stage, forced expiratory volume will be above 80%. By the final stage, the forced expiratory volume is below 35%.
Emphysema is included under COPD, but the two are not synonymous. For example, a patient can be diagnosed with COPD without having emphysema, and could instead be suffering from chronic bronchitis.
With emphysema, your lungs are damaged beyond repair. Emphysema can affect either the walls between the air sacs in your lungs, or the air sacs themselves. This results in fewer and larger air sacs rather than the many small air sacs that your lungs are supposed to have.
The number one cause of COPD, including emphysema, is cigarette smoking. A majority of people who are diagnosed with COPD smoke or used to smoke. While there are other causes of COPD than smoking – such as air pollutants, chemical fumes, dust, and other lung irritants – the fact that smoking is the main cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease means that it is largely preventable. At the very least, you significantly decrease your chances of COPD by not smoking.