What to Know About COPD and Lung Cancer

Both lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affect your lungs. Both can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. COPD and lung cancer are usually thought of as separate illnesses that share some symptoms. But some research suggests they might be different ways that the same disease process shows up.

Smoking damages your cells. Your body fights back with antioxidants and DNA repair mechanisms. But if these fail, you can get cancer or COPD.

Common Risk Factors

The diseases are thought to share several links:

Genetic risk. Among people who smoke, genes might help determine who gets COPD and lung cancer. Researchers have found several genes that increase your risk of both.

Inflammation . Research shows that long-term lung inflammation is linked to both COPD and lung cancer. Inflammation makes your cells divide quickly to try to repair the damage. This raises the risk that the cells will mutate and turn into cancer.

Age. The older you are, the harder it is for your body to repair DNA damage. This might be the reason your cancer risk goes up with age (the median age for a lung cancer diagnosis is 66). Rates of COPD are 2 1/2 times higher in people over 60.

Smoking also increases your risk of getting both COPD and lung cancer.

Having COPD does not guarantee you’ll get lung cancer. And COPD doesn't turn into lung cancer. But it does increase your risk.

Lung cancer is up to five times more likely in smokers with blockages in their airways than in those whose lungs work as they should. In one study, half the people with non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) also had COPD. They tended to have more symptoms, including cough, shortness of breath, and more mucus, than those with lung cancer who did not have COPD.

Symptoms and Treatments

Coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath are common in both COPD and lung cancer. If you have COPD and get lung cancer symptoms like chest pain, extreme tiredness, unexplained weight loss, or coughing up blood, talk to your doctor.


Both COPD and lung cancer are serious diseases. One study found that COPD lowered the odds of survival in people with lung cancer. Other research showed that in people with both NSCLC and serious COPD, chemotherapy increased 6-month survival rates.

While there's evidence that COPD and lung cancer are linked, their treatments remain separate. Your doctor may recommend treatments such as anti-inflammatory medication, extra oxygen, and lung surgery for COPD. For cancer, you might get chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted therapy drugs.

We need more research to look at the relationship between the COPD and lung cancer, and the possibility of treatments that might work for both.

One of the most important things you can do if you have COPD, lung cancer, or both, is to stop smoking. That stops further lung and DNA damage. It also lets you breathe easier, boosts your immune system, and helps you fight back against lung cancer.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 31, 2020




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