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COPD and Lung Cancer: Does One Lead to the Other?

Lung cancer and COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a serious lung condition found mostly in smokers. The disease, which gets worse over time, causes chronic coughing with mucus, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

COPD is a major risk factor for lung cancer. That’s because COPD and lung cancer share common causes, including cigarette smoking and premature lung aging.

Although not everyone with COPD will develop lung cancer, having COPD does increase your risk. Every year, about 1 percent of people living with COPD develop lung cancer.

Keep reading for more on this connection, how it’s diagnosed, and what you can do to prevent it.

What the research says

COPD and lung cancer are closely linked diseases. Researchers behind a 2015 study found that people with COPD are twice as likely to develop lung cancer. The two lung conditions are also more likely to appear simultaneously rather than occur separately.

Some research suggests that people who live with both COPD and lung cancer have a worse outlook than those people who have lung cancer without COPD. Results of one 2010 study showed that people with COPD had a higher chance of lung cancer reoccurring within 10 years than those without COPD — 21.3 percent compared to 13.5 percent.

The five-year survival rate is also significantly lower. Researchers in a 2012 study found that about 91 percent of people without COPD live for at least five years after their lung cancer diagnosis. The same can be said for only 77 percent of people with COPD.

This may be due to poorer lung function and quality of life. It may also indicate a genetic vulnerability to both COPD and lung cancer.  

Other risk factors for lung cancer

COPD isn’t the only risk factor for lung cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists radon, a radioactive gas, as the second-leading cause of lung cancer.

Radon is odorless and colorless, so the naturally occurring gas can go undetected if it becomes trapped in houses and buildings. It’s thought that about one out of every 15 American homes contains high levels of radon.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that radon leads to about 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year. People who smoke and are also exposed to radon account for about 18, 000 of those 21,000 lung cancer deaths.

Your risk for lung cancer can also be increased by the following:

  • exposure to secondhand smoke
  • family history of lung cancer
  • HIV infection
  • autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
  • radiation therapy to the chest

Exposure to certain workplace toxins can also increases your risk of cancer. This includes:

  • silica dust
  • diesel exhaust
  • dust
  • tar
  • chromium
  • asbestos
  • arsenic
  • cadmium
  • nickel
  • beryllium

When to see your doctor

Once it's determined that you have COPD, your doctor should keep an eye out for any signs that may indicate lung cancer.

You should also pay close attention to your symptoms. Although lung cancer does share some symptoms with COPD, such as coughing and difficulty breathing, there are a few subtle differences.

If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should consult your doctor right away:

  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • chest pain unrelated to coughing
  • hoarseness
  • bronchitis, pneumonia, or other recurring lung infections
  • coughing up blood or mucus marked with blood

When lung cancer spreads in your body, it can also cause:

  • headaches
  • numbness
  • dizziness
  • abdominal pain
  • yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • bone pain

Learn more: What does lung cancer look like? »

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

After assessing your symptoms and reviewing your medical history, your doctor will perform a physical exam.

From there, your doctor will perform one or more diagnostic test:

  • a chest X-ray to look at the heart and lungs
  • a CT scan to find any small lesions within in your lungs
  • a sputum cytology to detect lung cancer cells in the saliva-mucus mixture
  • a tissue biopsy to determine if any mass found in your lungs is cancerous
  • a bronchoscopy to look into the airways of your lungs

If you’re diagnosed with lung cancer, your doctor will need to determine the cancer’s severity. This is called staging. Staging can help your doctor decide which course of treatment is best for you.

Staging typically involves one or more imaging test:

  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • position emission tomography scan
  • bone scan

Learn more: Should I get a second opinion for lung cancer? »

How is lung cancer treated?

Chemotherapy is generally used to treat lung cancer, regardless of whether you have COPD.

However, if you have COPD and are in the early stages of lung cancer, you may undergo a combination of:

  • surgery to remove the cancerous tissue
  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy

If you’re diagnosed with small cell lung cancer (SCLC), however, you’re likely ineligible for surgery. Often with SCLC, the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body by the time the diagnosis is made.

Talk with your doctor about the options available to you and their potential benefits and risks. They can provide guidance and walk you through what to expect.

Life expectancy for people with COPD and lung cancer

One study suggests that 77 percent of people with both conditions will live at least 5 years after their lung cancer diagnosis.

However, some research shows that for people living with COPD and lung cancer, the cancer will most likely reappear within 10 years of original remission. Depending on the symptoms and severity, this may have a negative impact on your overall outlook.

Your doctor is your best resource for information about your individual life expectancy. Several factors must be taken into account, including the type of lung cancer you have, how advanced it is, and how it’s impacted by any other medical conditions you may have.

Learn more: Do lung cancer stages affect survival rates? »

How to prevent lung cancer

The National Cancer Institute lists three major steps that you can take to prevent lung cancer from developing:

  • If you have COPD and continue to smoke, quit immediately.
  • If you work around hazardous substances, reduce your exposure by wearing protective gear, such as a facemask.  You should also make sure your company is following the laws protecting workers from contact with materials that cause cancer.
  • Check your home for high radon levels. Home testing kits are available at most grocery stores.  If the radon levels are abnormal, take the necessary steps to stop radon leaks, such as sealing your basement.

For more information about lung cancer prevention, speak with your doctor. They can assess your individual level of risk and offer personalized guidance. 

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