Can COPD develop into lung cancer?

July 11, 2024
Avatar for Jyoti Kinghorn, PhDJyoti Kinghorn, PhD
COPD can develop into lung cancer

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can make a person more susceptible to getting lung cancer. A type of COPD called emphysema is a known risk factor for developing lung cancer.

COPD is a disease where airflow through the lungs is reduced because of inflammation, cellular damage, and accumulation of too much phlegm in the airways. The main cause of COPD in the US is cigarette smoking, followed by inhalation of air pollutants such as emissions from automobile exhausts, asbestos, and radon gas.

Inhalation of tobacco smoke or polluted air sends chemicals into the lungs which can cause irritation and immune reactions that lead to the development of COPD. Other causes include factors that make the lungs weak and unable to tolerate common environmental pollutants, for example, under-development of lungs due to premature birth or childhood sicknesses, and genetic mutations that affect lung resilience.

COPD is chronic. There is no cure for it though treatments can help manage the disease. The disease is also progressive and gets worse over time. COPD affects over 16 million people in the US and is the 6th leading cause of death in the country.

Lung cancer is another leading cause of death, causing 1 in 5 cancer deaths.

Research shows that damage from COPD makes the lungs more susceptible to cancer.

Facts about COPD and lung cancer

  • About 1% of lung cancers develop in individuals who have preexisting COPD.
  • Smoking is the greatest risk factor for developing COPD and lung cancer.
  • A combination of both cigarette smoking and COPD presents the highest risk for developing lung cancer- a 6-fold increase in risk over people who have never smoked and do not have COPD.
  • Even in the absence of smoking, COPD remains a risk factor for developing lung cancer. COPD is associated with the development of lung cancer independent of age, sex, and years of smoking.
  • After adjusting the data for smoking, the annual incidence of lung cancer in individuals with COPD is 3.02 cases per 1,000 compared with 0.43 cases per 1,000 in individuals without COPD.
  • In large studies, it has been shown that patients with mild COPD-related breathing problems (ventilatory dysfunction) were more likely to develop lung cancer than those with moderate to severe ventilatory dysfunction, who in turn were more likely to develop lung cancer than those with normal lung function.
  • Among types of COPD, emphysema was the most closely associated with lung cancer.

Emphysema is linked to lung cancer

Emphysema is a type of COPD in which the walls surrounding the small air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) get degraded making the alveoli fuse together. This reduces the surface area of the lungs available for air exchange and also decreases the capacity of the lungs to push out carbon dioxide.

  • The presence, location, and spread of emphysema can affect both the risk of developing lung cancer and the aggressiveness of the tumors. Lung cancers that develop in tissues affected by emphysema are more aggressive.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma- a non-small-cell cancer that develops in the thin, flat cells that line the airways of the lungs- is more common in the presence of emphysema.
  • A greater severity of emphysema is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer.
  • Other conditions can compound the risk of lung cancer. The incidence rate of lung cancer is as high as 42% when emphysema occurs in combination with pulmonary fibrosis.

While all the factors that link COPD and cancer are not known, chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are understood to play a role in developing cancer in COPD-afflicted cells.

The information provided in our blog posts is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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