The COPD-Lung Cancer Connection


Amy Rushlow

Was this helpful? (12)
Lung X-ray

You take about 12 breaths per minute. That’s over 700 breaths every hour. But two common diseases may rob you of your breath: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. And new research shows that the two conditions are closely related to one another.

Research shows that COPD is a major risk factor for lung cancer. In fact, if you have COPD, you’re about five times more likely than the average healthy person to develop lung cancer over the next 10 years.

And it works the other way, too:  About 50 to 90% of people with lung cancer also have COPD.

Read on to learn why these two diseases are so closely connected—and what you can do to keep your lungs healthy.

Smoking Increases COPD and Lung Cancer Risk

COPD and lung cancer share one major cause: smoking. Smoking is the leading cause of COPD and is responsible for about 80 to 90% of COPD-related deaths. Smoking also causes about 90% of lung cancers.

Smoking causes inflammation in the airways, which can lead to both COPD and lung cancer. This inflammation is a main feature of COPD, making it hard for people with the disease to breathe. Some experts believe this inflammation may also cause changes in the body that contribute to lung cancer.

How Are the Diseases Linked?

So, a lot of people have both COPD and lung cancer. And research has shown that having COPD makes you more likely to also develop lung cancer. But why? What explains this connection?  
For one thing, COPD may cause changes in the body that contribute to cancer. COPD causes lung inflammation that worsens over time. Chronic inflammation releases chemicals and proteins in the lungs that may contribute to cancer, experts say.

Studies also show that COPD itself—regardless of smoking status—is a risk factor for lung cancer. People with COPD have a higher risk of developing lung cancer than smokers without COPD.

Genetics may also explain part of the COPD-lung cancer connection. Research shows that some genes may make people more susceptible to both lung cancer and COPD.

Take Steps to Protect Your Lungs

If you smoke and you’re concerned about COPD and lung cancer, the best thing you can do is to quit smoking. Quitting smoking can help keep the disease from worsening. Quitting also lowers the risk for lung cancer over time. The longer you’ve quit, the bigger the benefits for your health. Talk with your doctor if you need help quitting. You can also call the National Cancer Institute Quitline at 877-44U-QUIT or visit

If you have COPD, talk with your doctor about getting screened for lung cancer.

Key Takeaways

  • COPD and lung cancer are closely connected. Many people who have one disease also have the other.

  • Smoking is the leading cause of both COPD and lung cancer, but genetics may also play a part in whether you develop either of these diseases.

  •  The best thing you can do to avoid these diseases—or to keep them from getting worse, if you have one or both—is to quit smoking.

This content is created by Healthgrades and brought to you by an advertising sponsor. More

This content is created or selected by the Healthgrades editorial team and is funded by an advertising sponsor. The content is subject to the Healthgrades medical review process for accuracy, balance and objectivity. The content is not edited or otherwise influenced by the advertisers appearing on this page except with the possible suggestion of the broad topic area. For more information, read the Healthgrades advertising policy.

Was this helpful? (12)
Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Aug 8, 2016

© 2018 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Young RP et al. Chromosome 4q31 locus in COPD is also associated with lung cancer. Eur Respir J. 2010 Dec;36(6):1375-82. 
  2. Sekine Y. Early detection of COPD is important for lung cancer surveillance. Eur Respir J. 2012 May;39(5):1230-40.
  3. Harms of Cigarette Smoking and Health Benefits of Quitting. National Institutes of Health. National Cancer Institute.
  4. Lifetime Risk of Developing or Dying from Cancer. American Cancer Society.
  5. Health Risks of Smoking Tobacco.  American Cancer Society.
  6. Smoking and COPD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  7. Exposure Factors Handbook: Chapter 6: Inhalation Rates, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  8. Adcock IM, et al. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer: new molecular insights.  Respiration. 2011;81(4):265-84.
  9. What Is COPD? National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
  10. Gershon AS, et al. Lifetime risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a longitudinal population study. Lancet. 2011 Sep 10;378(9795):991-6. 
  11. El-Zein RA, et al. Genetic predisposition to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and/or lung cancer: important considerations when evaluating risk. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2012 Apr;5(4):522-7.

You Might Also Like

At Your Appointment Guide: COPD

COPD Appointment Guide

Ask the right questions at your next appointment.