Lung Cancer: What To Know
COPDers are at an increased risk of developing lung cancer. Most people with COPD will not develop. Still, researchers are aware of the increased risk. They are working hard to learn more about links between COPD and lung cancer. Here’s some of what they are learning.
What is lung cancer?
During the course of our lives, cells divide. New cells replace old or injured cells. Normally, old cells die and are replaced by these new cells. Cancer is when gene mutations occur. Mutated genes tell cells to do something abnormal. In the case of cancer, affected cells abnormally multiply. These cells also somehow evade death. Thus, this multiplication may become uncontrollable. This causes lumps of cells that invade nearby tissues causing tumors. If this mass doesn't invade other tissues, it's said to be benign (non-cancerous). However, if it invades other tissues, it is said to be malignant (cancerous). When a lung mass is considered malignant, it’s called lung cancer.1-4
What causes lung cancer?
There are different things that may cause lung cancer.
Occupational exposure. Chemicals and microscopic particles in the air at your work may cause lung cancer. They are easily aerosolized and inhaled. About 2-9% of lung cancers are work-related. Efforts to improve air quality may help reduce these rates. Also, efforts to wear protective gear, such as masks, may also help.3
Cigarette smoking. Unlike other forms of air pollution, smokers are directly inhaling the smoke. In essence, they are directly inhaling 4,000 chemicals.5-6
Some of these chemicals irritate lung tissue. Researchers believe that directly inhaling these chemicals day after day after day significantly increases your risk of developing both COPD and lung cancer.6
This is backed up by studies showing that about 50% of smokers develop COPD. Other studies show that 75-80% of female lung cancers and 90% of male lung cancers are caused by smoking cigarettes.6 Overall, 85-90% of lung cancer cases are caused by directly inhaling cigarette smoke.3
This means that cigarette smoking is the single greatest risk factor for developing lung cancer. This should explain ongoing efforts to educate about the dangers of smoking and the benefits of quitting. Studies show that the instant you stop smoking, your risk of developing lung cancer begins to decrease.3,6
Airflow limitation. This is a key feature of COPD. It’s caused by narrow or obstructed airways. If you have it, you probably have COPD. It’s what makes you feel short of breath. One study showed that smokers diagnosed with it had a five times greater risk of developing lung cancer. This is even true when other factors, such as smoking history, are factored in. So, this means the risk is present even among those diagnosed with COPD who never smoked.5
Researchers are not sure what this means. It may have something to do with genetics. For instance, the same genes responsible for COPD may also be responsible for lung cancer. There are also other theories, such as the chemicals released by lung cells in response to smoking.5
Can you prevent lung cancer?
Researchers think all forms of cancer can be prevented. But, it entails making efforts to avoid potential carcinogens.1 For instance, children are educated on the dangers of smoking. Those who smoke are encouraged to quit. Employers are encouraged to reduce worker exposure to potential carcinogens. Workers exposed to air pollutants are encouraged to wear masks or take other precautions.
Cancer screening is another viable strategy. Due to the increased risk, doctors are encouraged to screen their COPD patients for lung cancer. But, this is a difficult task because symptoms of these two diseases are similar, such as shortness of breath and coughing. Also making it difficult is that many COPDers are often left undiagnosed.5
What to make of this?
Researchers continue to research links between these two diseases. The ultimate goal is to learn better strategies for preventing and treating both of them. In the meantime, the best strategy for preventing lung cancer entails avoiding things that cause it, such as smoking cigarettes.
This is just an introduction to lung cancer. To learn more, check out our sister site lungcancer.net.
Do you struggle to afford your COPD medications?