Here’s what you need to know about these two conditions
While lung cancer and COPD have similar symptoms and both affect an individual’s breathing, these two conditions are quite different. Many COPD sufferers are at risk for or also have lung cancer, but it’s important to understand the distinctions and to know what to look for. Here’s an overview of each disease and its symptoms:
What is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a serious lung condition that affects more than 12 million people in America, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. It occurs when there is an abundance of mucus in the airways and a loss of elasticity in the air sacs. The disease can vary from person to person and can include the symptoms of chronic bronchitis or emphysema – but all those who have COPD have trouble breathing and catching their breath. Other symptoms to look for include:
- Ongoing, persistent and productive cough
- Increased mucus
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent, severe, and worsening symptoms
What causes COPD?
COPD is more prevalent among the elderly and it is most often found in people who smoked or were exposed to second-hand smoke. But not all those who are diagnosed with this condition ever smoked. There are generally 5 common causes of COPD and these include:
- Second-hand smoke
- Breathing in pollution and fumes, chemicals, or toxic substances (at work or in another environment)
- Genetic predisposition – about 3 people in 100 with COPD have a defect in their DNA that causes the disease
- Asthma, although uncommon, can lead to COPD over time
What is lung cancer?
Lung cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in one or both lungs. These cells usually line the air passages and divide rapidly to form tumors. Once the tumors have become larger and increased in number, they make it difficult for the lungs to provide oxygen to the bloodstream. According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 1.3 million deaths around the world caused by lung cancer, making it the number one cancer-related killer. And the American Cancer Society reports that lung cancer makes up 14 percent of all newly-diagnosed cancers in the United States.
It is not uncommon for people not to experience any symptoms of lung cancer early on in the disease or to mistake their symptoms for something else, which is one of the reasons it can be so deadly. Many cases are diagnosed after the cancer has already reached stage three. But being mindful of these signs can help get an earlier diagnosis and treatment:
- Persistent or intense cough
- Changes in color of the mucus
- Hoarse voice
- Coughing up blood or blood in the mucus
- Trouble breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Pain the chest, shoulder, or back from coughing
- Harsh sounds when breathing (stridor)
- Feeling winded or out of breath without activity
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Weakness and fatigue
- Blood clots
- Memory loss
What causes lung cancer?
While most of us associate lung cancer with smoking, there are many cases of this cancer in people who’ve never smoked in their lives. And although most lung cancers – 80 percent, according to the American Cancer Society – appear in those who smoke or have smoked in their lifetime, there are other things that can cause this disease, including:
- Prolonged exposure to second-hand smoke
- Exposure to radon gas in the home
- Pollution in the air, both indoor and outdoor
- Asbestos or diesel exhaust
COPD and lung cancer prognosis and treatments
Although a COPD diagnosis can be frightening and life-altering, many people live with the disease and are able to remain relatively active. Those who are suffering with both COPD and lung cancer or just lung cancer are at a greater risk and often have more severe symptoms. Lung cancer, depending on the stage at which it’s discovered, is much more dangerous and can often spread to other parts of the body, including the brain and the bones.
Once a doctor has determined which stage the disease is in, lung cancer treatments can include:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted drug therapy
- Clinical trials
- Palliative care
COPD sufferers also have several treatment options and are at a higher risk for lung cancer than those who don’t have this condition. When diagnosed with only COPD, the treatments include:
- Bronchodilators (inhalers)
- Inhaled steroids
- Oral steroids
- Combination inhalers (for moderate or more acute cases on a short-term basis)
- Oxygen (for more severe cases)
- Surgery (for more severe cases)
Whether your loved one has been diagnosed with lung cancer or COPD, or a combination of the two, the most important thing to remember is that both of these conditions are often caused by smoking – so quitting is key. Knowing what to look for and getting examined as soon as symptoms arise are also critical because the earlier either of these diseases are diagnosed, the better the outlook.