Healthy Living

Is it Lung Cancer or COPD?

COPD may be hiding the deeper malaise of lung cancer, and early detection points the way to speedy recovery

Is it Lung Cancer or COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and lung cancer are two ends of the same spectrum. Though vastly different in core characteristics, they share many symptoms such as painful wheezing, a persistent cough, and the production of copious mucus. Both these diseases have similar causes and because they affect a vital organ, i.e., the lungs, could be potentially life-threatening if not caught early and treated. This article discusses the similarities and differences between these two diseases. Regardless of which one your symptoms point to, it is always best to seek medical advice at the earliest time when it comes to caring for your lungs.


COPD and Lung Cancer Appear Intertwined

COPD's seriousness as a degenerative lung condition can be understood because an overwhelming majority of people affected by lung cancer develop COPD. Even as COPD is seen to follow lung cancer, the reverse is equally true. Clinical studies have now established that COPD considerably increases the likelihood of developing cancer.

Smoking Propels People to Developing COPD and Lung Cancer

It is now widely accepted that genetic factors (the inheritance of genetically mutated DNA) predispose people to developing cancer. Having a sibling or distant relative in the family tree that succumbed to cancer makes the risk of cancer shoot up in subsequent generations.

Recent studies have proved that the same genetic factors that propel smokers to developing COPD can also push smokers to lung cancer. Smoking has emerged as the most prominent risk factor, boosting chances of acquiring COPD and lung cancer.

Recognizing theSsymptoms of COPD and Understanding Lung Cancer

COPD is an affliction that troubles around 12 million US citizens. Air passages and alveolar sacs losing their elasticity and glandular cells secreting excessive mucus can combine to devastate the respiratory mechanism.

COPD is characterized by the narrowing of the bronchial tubes and alveoli in the lungs because of excess mucus secretions. This excess in mucus is due to long term exposure of the individual to cigarette smoke, second-hand cigarette smoke, industrial pollutants, smoke from big fires, and dust. This long-term exposure not only irritates the inner linings of the bronchi causing the mucus secretion but also causes permanent damage to the hairlike cilia which are responsible for keeping out any foreign particles from entering the lungs. As the disease progresses untreated, more and more irreversible lung damage takes place until the patient can no longer breathe unassisted. COPD if left unattended to can lead to death.

These are its symptoms and characteristics:

  • Shortness of breath and labored breathing
  • Breathing that is painful and nearly impossible without conscious effort
  • Low oxygen levels in tissues and the resultant fatigue, so that ordinary tasks feel daunting
  • Mostly affecting the middle-aged and elderly population

Lung cancer is a phenomenon largely associated with genetically-mutated lung cells that grow uncontrollably to create large tumorous masses. The destruction of healthy tissue compromises the function of the lungs, creating conditions resembling symptoms of COPD.

Symptoms that are unique to cancer would be blood being coughed up in sputum, unexplained loss of body weight, and disinterest in food. Also, unlike COPD, lung cancer may create widespread swelling in the face, neck, and chest areas.   

Disorders Known to Develop in Tandem with COPD:   

  • Arthritic pain in joints
  • Cardiac disorders
  • Inflammation of the sinus cavities
  • High blood pressure
  • Loss of control over blood sugar levels, as in diabetes
  • Interrupted breathing during sleep
  • Depression and anxiety attacks, and
  • Osteoporosis

Lung cancer confines its destructive potential largely to the lung in the disease's initial stages. It then spreads through the lymphatic system to organs like the liver and kidneys where new tumors metastasize. As cancer attacks different parts of the body through the pulmonary, circulatory, and musculoskeletal systems, symptoms unique to various organ systems start appearing.

The 3 Fear Factors That Usually Point to COPD

  • In the preceding month, you experienced breathlessness on more than a few occasions
  • You frequently coughed up mucus or phlegm
  • You’ve cut down on workload because of tiredness

If you’ve smoked more than your usual quota of cigarettes, and you belong in the 35-plus age bracket, these symptoms could be screaming that you have COPD. Interestingly, an x-ray may only highlight the typical white spot of mucus-filled alveolar lung sacs characteristic of COPD. It takes a detailed CT scan or PET scan to unearth the tentacle like growth of the cancerous lung tumor.


Both COPD and lung cancer affect the lungs and have in common some symptoms like a persistent cough, shortness of breath, tightening of the chest, unexpected weight loss, and fatigue. However, some symptoms differ. Both COPD and lung cancer patients cough up phlegm, but in the case of the former, the phlegm is clear, while in the case of the latter, blood is often coughed up with the phlegm.

COPD is mainly characterized by the narrowing of the bronchi and alveoli due to mucus formation and irreversible damage to the inner lining of the lung tissue, while lung cancer is characterized by the formation of a tumor or tumors in the lungs due to uncontrolled cell growth.

Both COPD and lung cancer can have the same causes, although genetics is known to play a role in some cases of lung cancer. COPD is a disease that is specific to the lungs and does not spread to other parts of the body. Lung cancer, on the other hand, can metastasize and spread to other regions of the body via the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. Lung cancer can cause tumors to develop in the lymph nodes, bone, and even the brain.

COPD can lead to lung cancer and vice versa. Both these diseases can be life-threatening because they affect the lungs, which are vital organs.

The Last Word

We can take comfort in the fact that COPD detected early can be tackled and even overcome. It is COPD associated with cancer, one feeding off the other, that brings on the most dangerous and often irreparable conditions. If you are ever confronted with symptoms of COPD, it would be better to err on the side of caution and undergo a cancer checkup to eliminate the bigger risk from the equation. Early detection and treatment could make all the difference between life and death.