Friday, August 21, 2009

COPD: The Bane of My Existence

For the past year (OK it's only been a week) I've been reminded constantly that I have COPD. In hot, humid weather I use up most of my energy just breathing, and my COPD is "moderate" at this point. Since the humidity is unusually high today, I'm tired from going to the fair last night (a story for another post), and I'm having too much trouble breathing to do much else, I decided this is as good a time as any to talk about my disease.

I quit smoking in 1968 after smoking for about 12 years, so as years passed I thought I escaped any consequences from that vile habit. Then about 10 years ago I started having days where I couldn't seem to get a deep enough breath. As time passed those episodes got longer until they were lasting almost 3 days. Still, doctors told me it was simply stress.

Then 5 years ago I complained once again to my doctor and he sent me for yet another x-ray. That time there was something to see - a "shadow." He sent me to a pulmonologist who ordered a CT scan which showed a nodule in my left lung. Thankfully, 2 years of follow-up CT's proved the nodule is scar tissue from pnemonia, but on my first visit to him the pulmonologist had diagnosed COPD. Finally I knew why I had been having those episodes of breathing difficulty!

Since then my lung function has deteriorated very slowly. I'm fortunate, but I was alarmed to discover COPD is this country's 5th deadliest disease and deterioration is inevitable.

Right after my diagnosis we sold our woodstove and got a gas stove to supplement our electric heat. Since neither of us smoke and none of our friends do, my exposure to second-hand smoke is minimal. However, the doctor told me anyone who ever smoked for any length of time is a ticking time bomb. Yes, quitting decreases your risk tremendously, but some damage remains. I think of all the years I worked in smoke-filled offices, ate in smoke-filled restaurants, met friends in smoke-filled bars. It's a wonder I made it so far without suffering consequences.

Despite the fact that my case is still moderate and I don't need oxygen, this disease has changed my life greatly. I'm affected by the weather but also by anything that requires upper body strength. Running the vacuum cleaner used to just be a mundane chore, now it has to be done room by room resting in between rooms. I can only pull weeds for a few minutes at a time - and my flower garden gets out of control earlier each year. We're thinking of digging it up and planting small bushes that don't have to be trimmed - that is another thing I can only do for short periods of time.

In short, COPD makes me feel old and though I'm not young chronologically, I don't feel old mentally. Now that COPD inhalers are so prominent on TV it seems like just another "disease of the moment" but if you know someone who has it, please take it seriously. This isn't something to laugh at like a Billy Mays "but wait there's more" spiel, and those inhalers help but they don't cure. The people in the commercials appear to be well after they start using them, but unfortunately it just ain't so.

If you would like to join the fight to find a cure for COPD, you can donate to the COPD Foundation, info at Also, please ask your congressman to join the Congressional COPD caucus. Thank you on behalf of all of us who have the disease.

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