Having COPD Has Taught Me To Love Myself More

Emily Shiffer
·5-min read
Photo credit: Samantha Tucker - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Samantha Tucker - Hearst Owned

From Country Living

I started smoking cigarettes at 13. I had family members who smoked, and I was curious what the hype was about. I also thought it made me look cool. I quickly turned into a heavy, two-pack-a-day smoker. That lasted for 15 years, until I quit cold turkey at 28. My daughter, who was 8 years old at the time, pleaded with me to—even at her young age, she knew smoking wasn’t healthy. I assumed that this change alone was enough to protect my health, and that because I was so young, my body would simply mend the cigarette’s damage to my lungs.

A decade went by, and by 38, I still wasn’t smoking, but I was close to 300 pounds and a couch potato; I did no physical activity. I also had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and was pre-diabetic. I knew this was a deadly combo and that I had to make a change.

So, I decided to join a gym and sign up for a 5K. I trained myself on a treadmill for the 3.1-mile race. My average mile was 13 minutes, and I huffed, puffed, and sweat buckets. At the end of my workouts, I would throw in a few sprints. That nearly took me out every time. It felt as though my airway was constricting—like I was trying to breathe through a defective straw. My lungs screamed for me to stop. I asked my doctor about it, and she told me to see a pulmonologist.

A shocking diagnosis

A week later, I was in a pulmonologist’s office taking a variety of breathing tests. I had to hold my breath, blow out, and suck in, which was difficult. I couldn’t hold my breath for longer than a few seconds. It scared me to see, so starkly, how poorly my lungs functioned.

The pulmonologist told me I had asthma. The condition can be hereditary and it’s prevalent in my family. Then she told me something I wasn’t prepared for: I also had COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition that causes wheezing and shortness of breath, and has no cure. My lung function was at 63 percent, which means that my lungs were only capable of handling about two-thirds the amount of air that they should. Even though I had quit smoking 10 years earlier, there was still enough damage done to my body that it had caught up with me.

I was floored. I immediately thought of my dad, who at that time was 70, and tethered to an oxygen tank because he had COPD. I watched him struggle with 19 percent lung function. I vowed to not let that happen to me.

Hitting the ground running

The pulmonologist gave me an albuterol inhaler (aka, a rescue inhaler) for physical activity or whenever I felt short of breath. The medication helps open my airways, and it’s quick and painless to use. She also taught me how to “belly breathe”—pushing my stomach out with an inhale and pulling it in with an exhale—to better manage my wheezing. She reassured me that I could continue to run if I listened to my body and took breaks if my breathing felt labored or if I knew I was pushing too hard.

Photo credit: Samantha Tucker - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Samantha Tucker - Hearst Owned

I kept training on the treadmill and ran my first 5K in September 2017. Feeling more confident, I started to run outside. I always ran with my rescue inhaler, making sure to get a puff before each workout. This helped keep wheezing at bay, but I also had to watch the forecast meticulously to plan my running days. Cold, harsh weather is hard on my lungs, as is hot, dry heat. Humidity is a killer too. In the wintertime, I wear a face covering to shield my mouth and in the summer, I’ve learned that early mornings or evenings are the best times for runs.

In October 2018, I ran my first half-marathon with a time of 2:58. To date, I have run five half-marathons, with 2:08 as my personal best. My next goal is to clock under two hours. And currently, my fastest mile is 7:49.

Discovering my true strength

When I run, I feel like I’m flying, and it empowers me to keep going. I know that the physical activity is making my lungs stronger. I can run up stairs and chase a soccer ball with my son without being winded. I run nearly every day, and when I’m not running, I enjoy lifting weights and practicing yoga. This positive momentum has translated to my diet too. I’ve cut most added sugars and all white flour, and I skip red meat and focus on chicken, fish, and a host of vegetables. My motto: If it doesn’t have nutritional value, I don’t eat it. I also drink a lot of water and stay well-rested. Now, I weigh 163 pounds. At 41 years old, I am the healthiest I have ever been.

I share my COPD diagnosis with people because I want them to know that the condition is not a death sentence. If you listen to your body and treat it with the respect that it deserves, you can manage the disease. In fact, COPD has helped me to love myself more. I’m more aware of my capabilities, I care about my well-being, and I want to treat my body as the temple that it is.

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