Wednesday 21 August 2019

Chronic lung disease sufferer on importance of quitting smoking

Former smoker Finola Cadenhead, who has COPD, a serious lung disease, says that giving up cigarettes and early diagnosis are essential in saving the lives of those living with the respiratory condition

Early diagnosis and giving up smoking is vital to save those with respiratory disease, says Finola Cadenhead. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Early diagnosis and giving up smoking is vital to save those with respiratory disease, says Finola Cadenhead. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Joy Orpen

Finola Cadenhead does not consider it a total catastrophe that she suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). That's because her lung problems were the catalyst for an investigation that revealed she was suffering from something even more urgently life-threatening. And getting that information in good time probably saved her life.

As children, Finola and her two sisters led a fairly nomadic existence, because their father, who worked for the Department of Agriculture, was posted around the country. But when Finola was 13, the family finally settled in Cork. After school, she began a long career in the insurance industry. Her first two years were spent in Dublin. This was followed by six years in Carlow, before finally settling permanently among the bright lights of the capital city. "I was a party girl," Finola volunteers. "I loved dancing, so I liked going to the clubs." Smoking was very much part of that scene in those days, and Finola was no exception. She had been puffing away since she was 18. "Both my parents smoked," she says. "Even so, my mother lived until she was almost 90."

However, it was a very different story on her father's side of the family. She had seen the bleak side of cigarette consumption, when a paternal aunt developed lung problems. "She had a chronic chest condition, and had to sleep in an iron lung [which assisted with breathing]," Finola explains. "She had no quality of life. Nonetheless, she smoked until the end."

In 1979, Finola bought a house in Shankill, no mean feat for a young woman on her own. "I was very proud of myself," she says. "I decorated it really nicely." Given her elegant appearance, there is no doubt Finola is also a dab hand when it comes to decor in the home. At that time, she was enjoying life to the full. "I had some very sociable colleagues," she says. "I did yoga, played tennis, bridge and poker, and I loved gardening."

In 1984, her father - who had stopped smoking many years previously - died, following a massive heart attack. "At the time, they were starting to talk about cigarettes causing cancer," Finola recalls. But by then, her fate, it would seem, had already been sealed by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. "When I was a child, if I caught a cold I'd often have to leave the classroom because of my cough," she says. And that trend continued. By the time she was in her 40s, Finola was getting chest infections, compounded by laryngitis, on a fairly regular basis. So eventually she decided to pack in the cigarettes. "I smoked all the way through a poker game one night," she recalls. "Then I stopped."

Soon after, she had acupuncture. "The therapist put two pins in my ear. If I was desperate for a cigarette I would press on the pins, and the need would diminish. Once I got over the withdrawal symptoms, I developed a real aversion to cigarettes," she says. Unfortunately, even though she had quit smoking, her chest problems continued, sometimes leading to pneumonia.

In 1994, when she was 50 and still single, Finola met Scotsman Colin Cadenhead through work. Sadly, Colin's first wife had died a few years previously. But over time, he and Finola grew closer, and, two years later, they married. They had their reception at Killiney Castle; Finola wore a pink Frank Usher ensemble. Her elderly mother, who gave her away, had a drop of whiskey to calm her nerves. The newlyweds honeymooned in the south of France.

About a year later, Finola got another bout of pneumonia, so she was referred to Professor Tim McDonnell, a consultant respiratory physician at St Michael's Hospital in Dun Laoghaire. "He sent me for a lung-function test," she recalls. "When he told me I was suffering from COPD, I was quite shocked. My GP and I had both thought I was suffering from asthma. So I said to the professor, 'Well, at least I don't have emphysema,' and he said, 'But I'm afraid, Finola, you do.' I was devastated. I'd been off cigarettes for years." According to Copd Support Ireland, the term covers chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or a combination of both conditions.

In 2002, Finola's sister Rosemarie was also diagnosed with COPD. "She gave up cigarettes straight away," says Finola. "But it was already too late. She only lasted four years. It was such a terrible loss for us all, but especially for her children. Early diagnosis is so important."

Currently, Finola has only 30pc to 40pc lung function. To maintain a decent quality of life, she spends a minimum of 30 minutes on the treadmill every morning; she also swims and walks when she can, she watches her diet and she avoids smoky environments resolutely.

In 2014, shortly before she went on holiday to Tenerife, Finola got another infection, so Professor McDonnell sent her for a chest scan. She was shocked to learn that they had found a tumour on her pancreas. Further tests revealed it was malignant, so 50pc of the pancreas, as well as her entire spleen, were removed. One of the unavoidable results of the surgery was that Finola became diabetic.

Her post-operative recovery was also greatly hampered by the poor state of her lungs. "I was in high-dependency for two weeks," she says. "The surgery was successful, but unfortunately my lungs collapsed." When Finola was well enough, she began chemotherapy; and thankfully, she has been in relatively good health ever since. She now believes her lung problems helped to save her life. "If I didn't have COPD, they wouldn't have found the tumour, and I might not be here today," she says. "So now I want to give something back."

Finola has dedicated herself to fundraising for COPD Support Ireland. "I started to knit some years back," she volunteers. "I knitted all the figures for a crib, even baby Jesus and the little lambs; it was raffled and raised €1,300." And that's just for starters. She, like many other affected people, will be marking World COPD Day on November 18, to raise awareness about the condition, and to improve the care of people living with the disease.

Finola says she is now feeling "great" because she gets good medical attention, she exercises religiously and watches her diet. But it's also because she loves her husband Colin so very much. "I waited long enough, but I did find my soulmate in the end," she concludes.

For more information about COPD Support Ireland, tel: (01) 283-3500, or see

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