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What You Need to Know About the Link Between COPD and Lung Cancer

Did you know that people who have COPD are at greater risk for developing lung cancer down the line than people who start out with healthier respiratory systems? Unfortunately, it's true--and it's also true that most people with COPD don't know about this risk.

According to a recent study conducted in the UK, it's not unusual for people with COPD to accept new breathing symptoms with their COPD.1 Because of that, they often don't seek out appropriate diagnosis and treatment in a timely manner.

Understanding the risk of lung cancer

People with COPD are four to five times as likely to develop lung cancer as the general population.1, 2 In fact, there is increasing evidence that COPD and lung cancer may even be "different aspects of the same disease."3

Both diseases are considerably more common in smokers than they are in non-smokers, although not every smoker will get either COPD or lung cancer. It seems that in certain people, the body's natural defense systems against the effects of smoking fail, increasing the risk of respiratory disease.

The risk for both diseases also rises with age, due to aging-related changes in lung function. COPD may actually speed up the aging process in the lungs. In addition, inflammation is a common factor in both COPD and cancer.3

The 5-year survival rate with lung cancer in people who also have COPD is also lower.3

  • 91 percent of people without COPD live for at least 5 more years after a lung cancer diagnosis
  • Only 77 percent of people with COPD live for at least 5 more years after a lung cancer diagnosis4

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women.5

Details of the Study

The small study mentioned in the beginning of this post was published in the journal Psycho-Oncology. Researchers studied how people with COPD experience and respond to new chest symptoms. They also looked at how often these patients sought help from health care professionals for their symptoms.1

Here are some more details of the study:

  • 40 people participated (17 male, 23 female)
  • Participants were aged 40 to 83 years old
  • Questions asked included: what symptoms they were having, how they recognized those symptoms, and if they sought help
  • None of the participants knew they carried an increased risk for lung cancer because they had COPD
  • Instead, these particular patients thought their new or worsened symptoms were more likely due to things like the weather or a COPD flare.

In some cases, the patients did not seek medical care because they didn't want to make a fuss. Or, for some, even getting to the doctor presented challenges that were hard to overcome.

Researchers recommended both that:

  • Patients seek medical care more often for changes in symptoms
  • Health care professionals need to do a better job of educating patients about the risk and symptoms of lung cancer

What does this mean for you?

If you have COPD, you do have an increased risk for lung cancer. However, overall, only about 1% (1 out of 100) of people with COPD actually develop lung cancer as well.3

Obviously, having both diseases is far from ideal. Not only are you likely to have more trouble breathing on an everyday basis, but your quality of life is also likely to be poorer. But early detection with lung cancer can greatly improve your odds of survival. So, it's important to seek care if you have any suspicions at all that how you are feeling is not just due to your COPD.

The symptoms of both lung cancer and COPD are similar, but if you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor for an appointment right away:3

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Chest pain that is not just due to coughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Frequent lung infections
  • Coughing up blood or mucus tinged with blood

Some of those symptoms might also be related to nothing more than the effects of COPD, but better safe than sorry. Get it checked out. Also, if you have any of these symptoms, it could mean that you not only have lung cancer, but that it has also spread to other areas of the body:3

  • Headaches
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Yellowing of your eyes and skin (also called jaundice)
  • Bone pain

Diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer varies, depending on the type of cancer cells and other factors. Your health care team can help you decide the right course of treatment for you.

What you can do to help lower your risk of lung cancer

Here are a few actions you can take to lower your risk for developing lung cancer.

  • If you still smoke, make a plan to quit and carry it out.
  • Avoid being exposed to secondhand smoke and other toxins in your work or home environment, if you can.
  • Check the level of radon in your home with a home testing kit. (Radon may increase cancer risk.)5
  • Adopt healthy lifestyle habits.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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