COPD And Lung Cancer: Is There A Connection?

The lungs are a vital organ in the human body that plays a crucial role in keeping us alive. They exchange gases between the air we breathe in and our bloodstream, providing oxygen to our body's cells and removing carbon dioxide waste. But in addition to their respiratory function, the lungs are also important for immune function. They produce and secrete mucus that helps protect the body against various pathogens. The mucus catches these harmful substances, which are excreted when we cough, per the Alberta Health Services.

Despite the important role the lungs play in keeping us alive, this vital organ is susceptible to several conditions. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and lung cancer are two different diseases that affect the lungs, but they are closely related in several ways, says WebMD. COPD is a chronic lung disease that causes breathing difficulties. Lung cancer, on the other hand, is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. Although distinct, there's a chance that both conditions are somehow connected.

Both conditions have similar risk factors

Studies have shown that having COPD puts you at a higher risk of developing lung cancer. One reason is that both diseases share common risk factors, such as exposure to environmental pollutants. The most common risk factor of COPD is smoking cigarettes — however, exposure to other irritants, such as air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust, can also contribute to developing the disease, according to Mayo Clinic. In some rare cases, genetic factors may play a role in the development of COPD. People with a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency are at higher risk for developing COPD, as their bodies cannot produce a protein that helps protect the lungs from damage, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Like COPD, lung cancer is also strongly associated with cigarette smoking, but other risk factors include exposure to arsenic, asbestos, and other carcinogens, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Certain genetic mutations have also been linked to an increased risk of developing lung cancer. For example, mutations in the EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) gene have been found in some lung cancers, explains a 2010 study published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease. Other genetic mutations linked to an increased risk of lung cancer include mutations in the KRAS and TP53 genes, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Oncology Letters).

What's the connection between COPD and lung cancer?

Generally speaking, both COPD and lung cancer have similar causes and may cause similar symptoms. For example, COPD can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. Lung cancer can also cause similar symptoms. 

Chronic inflammation is also thought to play a role in developing and progressing many diseases, including COPD and lung cancer, per a 2015 study published in the journal Lung Cancer. Inflammation may also damage lung tissue in people with COPD, which can make them more susceptible to developing lung cancer. However, not all people with COPD will develop lung cancer, and not all people with lung cancer have COPD.

If you have COPD, it helps to be aware of your increased lung cancer risk and consult with your doctor about the steps to take to reduce it. This might include quitting smoking if you are a smoker, avoiding exposure to environmental pollutants, and getting regular exercise. Screenings for lung cancer also help with early detection and may greatly improve the chances of successful treatment and recovery.