COPD and lung cancer

Contributed by Jim Nelson, consultant to CAIRE Inc.When an individual is faced with a morning cough, shortness of breath and possibly chest pain, their thoughts will many times turn to lung cancer. We tend to look toward the worst possible scenario when symptoms arise, so that is not at all surprising. There is also a tendency to put off the doctor’s appointment that might result in some sort of scary diagnosis. Sometimes we just don’t want to know.

It is not surprising that Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and lung cancer are related. They are both, after all, diseases of the lungs and they both may be related to tobacco use, second- or third-hand smoke, or genetic or environmental influences. While COPD tends to be a disease of the older set, the same can sometimes be said about lung cancer. The longer we live, the better the chances that something will catch up with us. It is simply the law of averages. It has been established that, given a diagnosis of lung cancer, there is a 40 to 70 percent chance that COPD will also be present, even if the patient has never smoked. Many of the symptoms of the two diseases are similar, such as the aforementioned shortness of breath and chronic cough, as well as fatigue and sometimes weight loss.

For lung cancer patients who do have a history of smoking, the chances of a dual diagnosis including COPD are 6 times higher than in smokers without the cancer diagnosis. It is not a simple causal relationship, but it seems that weak lungs are much more susceptible to being invaded by the chronic bronchitis and emphysema of COPD. In patients who are born early, for instance, the incidence of COPD is greater than in those whose lungs had a chance to fully develop prior to birth. Similarly, lungs that have been injured by chemicals or cigarette smoke tend to develop COPD symptoms more frequently. Even so, only about 1 in 5 smokers will wind up with COPD.

A diagnosis of COPD does not dramatically increase the chances of lung cancer. The incidence is naturally higher, because of the common causal factors, and there is a tendency for physicians to screen their COPD patients for cancer. The pulmonary function tests are the initial tests for COPD, but the X-rays and CT scans are common to both diseases. It is possible, given a case of severe COPD and the lung infection of double pneumonia, for the radiological images to be misdiagnosed as lung cancer. I speak from experience. After spending 6 long weeks thinking that I had less than 2 years to live, the correct diagnosis came down, and we were allowed to continue our lives.

Many diseases are accompanied with “comorbidities” — other conditions that can aggravate the patient’s overall condition. COPD and lung cancer are certainly in that category. One does not cause the other, although they can be caused by the same things.  They have similarities in symptoms, and the two diseases share some treatments, such as supplemental oxygen therapy. A knowledge of the treatment options for COPD can significantly aid the lung cancer patient in dealing with the discomfort of the combined diseases during treatment for the cancer.

~ Uncle Jim

Jim Nelson is a double lung transplant recipient and a patient advocate for COPD patients throughout the U.S. and around the world. He and his wife, Mary, are well known patient advocates and brand ambassadors for those organizations who tirelessly endeavor to help those individuals who suffer from a variety of respiratory diseases and the caregivers who support them.

If you have been prescribed oxygen therapy, learn more about CAIRE wearableportable and stationary oxygen concentrators by visiting or calling 1-877-704-0878 to talk to an oxygen advisor. 

When using any oxygen therapy device please consult the applicable product instructions for use for product indications, contraindications, warnings, precautions, and detailed safety information.

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