Early recognition of COPD is key to reducing lung damage.

Public Health

Can COPD Management Aid Earlier Lung Cancer Diagnosis?

“These findings highlight the importance of early diagnosis of COPD itself to identify and improve surveillance of people at high risk of developing lung cancer."

A recent study published in Current Oncology has identified an important link between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and earlier lung cancer detection. 

This is significant because, as with almost any cancer, early detection may dramatically improve patient outcomes. Unfortunately, when there are few tell-tale signs or symptoms, many cancers go undiagnosed until later stages of disease.

This includes lung cancer, considered one of the more deadly cancers by the American Cancer Society. Knowing signs, potential causes and common comorbidities can lead to earlier diagnosis and faster treatment.

In this study, a thorough review of health administrative databases and cancer registries available through Ontario, Canada, led to a determination that those with COPD were 30 percent less likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer already at an advanced stage.

A primary reason for early-stage diagnosis of lung cancer for those with COPD is frequency of lung imaging. COPD-related treatment — including routine CT scans and lung monitoring — as well as higher frequency of healthcare appointments contributed to earlier-stage lung cancer diagnoses among those with COPD.

“These findings highlight the importance of early diagnosis of COPD itself to identify and improve surveillance of people at high risk of developing lung cancer,” the study authors wrote. “Our findings also support the need for enhanced partnerships with COPD care providers when caring for lung cancer patients.”

November is COPD Awareness Month, offering an annual opportunity for advocacy groups to highlight the importance of early intervention to reduce impacts of lung damage and improve quality of life for those managing COPD.

COPD refers to a group of pulmonary diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis – conditions that more than 12 million people in the U.S. are living with today. The American Association for Respiratory Care encourages physicians to use the month of November to educate patients about the risks and impacts of COPD, and the group has several educational resources available on their website.

Those managing COPD are more likely to develop lung cancer than those who are not, regardless of any smoking history, according to the study. The study notes that patients with COPD should be made aware of this link to not discount lung cancer as a reason for COPD symptoms worsening if they do.

The study also highlights that COPD is grossly undiagnosed: Up to 81 percent of those with the respiratory condition are unaware they are sick, and at subsequent risk for other diseases, including lung cancer. Many in this group are likely nonsmokers who do not suspect they could have developed a severe respiratory illness, or delay seeking care out of worry, embarrassment or perceived stigma.

Still, the overlap in potential symptoms of COPD and lung cancer may also lead to earlier diagnoses of either disease. As shown in the report, nearly one in five patient records included in the study showed those individuals were diagnosed with COPD during clinical assessments for lung cancer.

The American Cancer Society recently updated the lung cancer screening recommendations. On Nov. 1, the group called for anyone with a smoking history to have an annual low-dose CT image starting at age 50.


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