Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and risk of lung cancer: the importance of smoking and timing of diagnosis

J Thorac Oncol. 2013 Jan;8(1):6-11. doi: 10.1097/JTO.0b013e318274a7dc.


Introduction: The majority of cases of both lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are attributable to cigarette smoking, but whether COPD is an independent risk factor for lung cancer remains unclear.

Methods: We used The Health Improvement Network, a U.K. general practice database, to identify incident cases of lung cancer and controls matched on age, sex, and practice. Using conditional logistic regression, we assessed the effects of timing of first diagnoses of COPD, pneumonia, and asthma on the odds of lung cancer, adjusting for smoking habit.

Results: Of 11,888 incident cases of lung cancer, 23% had a prior diagnosis of COPD compared with only 6% of the 37,605 controls. The odds of lung cancer in patients who had COPD diagnosed within 6 months of their cancer diagnosis were 11-fold those of patients without COPD (odds ratio 11.47, 95% confidence interval 9.38-14.02). However, when restricted to earlier COPD diagnoses, with adjustment for smoking, the effect markedly diminished (for COPD diagnoses >10 years before lung cancer diagnosis, odds ratio: 2.18, 95% confidence interval: 1.87-2.54). The pattern was similar for pneumonia. The effect of COPD on lung cancer remained after excluding patients who had a codiagnosis of asthma.

Conclusion: A diagnosis of COPD is strongly associated with a diagnosis of lung cancer, however, this association is largely explained by smoking habit, strongly dependent on the timing of COPD diagnosis, and not specific to COPD. It seems unlikely, therefore, that COPD is an independent risk factor for lung cancer.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Asthma / diagnosis
  • Asthma / epidemiology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Confidence Intervals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Lung Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Lung Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Odds Ratio
  • Pneumonia / diagnosis
  • Pneumonia / epidemiology
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / diagnosis*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / epidemiology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / epidemiology*
  • Time Factors
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology