Lung Cancer Check Advised for COPD Patients

Lung cancer tests are recommended when receiving a diagnosis of COPD

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) A diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) often is the end result of a lifetime of smoking. So should COPD patients want to get a checkup for lung cancer as well?

But while the two diseases are often linked together because they are smoking-related, COPD in itself is not a risk factor for having lung cancer, according to a new study.

Scientists, however, found that patients with COPD and/or pneumonia had increased odds of having or developing lung cancer.

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Helen Powell, MD, in the Nottingham Respiratory Research Unit, Division Of Epidemiology And Public Health, University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, led research analyzing data on 11,888 lung cancer cases. Investigators found that almost one in four lung cancer patients had a prior diagnosis of COPD. Only 6 percent had COPD in a control group of 37,605 subjects without lung cancer.

Usually caused by damage to the lungs from smoking, COPD is a disease that makes it difficult to breathe. It is typically a mix of bronchitis (an inflammation of the airways between the nose and the lungs) and emphysema (a chronic condition caused by damage to tiny air sacs in the lungs).

They also noted an “extremely strong unadjusted relationship between both COPD and pneumonia and lung cancer in the six months immediately before lung cancer diagnosis.”

These results, said the researchers, “highlight the need to consider a diagnosis of lung cancer when making new diagnoses of COPD or pneumonia.”

This view corresponds to recommendations from the American Thoracic Society and the UK National Institute for Health Research that all patients should have a chest radiograph looking for evidence of lung cancer at the time of COPD diagnosis.

Fred Hirsch, MD, professor of medicine and pathology and associate director of international programs at University of Colorado Cancer Center in Aurora, told dailyRx News, “ We have learned from the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST), that screening with a low-dose CT reduced the lung cancer mortality by 20 percent compared to the control group, who received a chest X-ray.

"Screening for lung cancer is most optimally done with low-dose CT scan in high-risk groups of patients. Because smoking is associated with COPD, the COPD patients of course must be considered as being at high-risk for developing lung cancer, and low-dose CT should be recommended, particularly if the patients are in the age range of 55-70 years old.”

COPD and lung cancer are two of the leading causes of death in America, according to the American Lung Association. The results of this study suggest the importance of smokers and previous smokers being screened for lung cancer and COPD. Early detection and treatment of these diseases can help save and extend lives. Quitting smoking also reduces the risk of getting COPD and lung cancer.

This study was published in the January 2013 issue of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer’s (IASLC) Journal of Thoracic Oncology.

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Review Date: 
December 18, 2012
Last Updated:
December 19, 2012