Saturday 17 March 2018

'I know I will die from my disease but I try to not think that far ahead'- Former smoker on living with limiting lung condition

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes simple, everyday activities, like dressing or walking, difficult, says sufferer Carmel McCarthy

Control: Carmel McCarthy, who suffers with COPD, with her dogs Misty, Abby and Cassie Photo: Natasha Barton
Control: Carmel McCarthy, who suffers with COPD, with her dogs Misty, Abby and Cassie Photo: Natasha Barton

Even though I know I will die from my disease one day, I try to not think that far ahead. I am single, I have no children, and I live alone. At the age of 67, as I look back on my life, and my current state of health, I wonder if only I knew then what I know now, how life could have been very, very different.

Back then - this was the 1960s - it was 'chic' to smoke. Remember Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' and the way she would charm the boys, cigarette and ultra-sophisticated cigarette-holder in hand? All the TV advertisements glamourised it too, so how could it be bad for me?

By my late 20s, however, and now smoking for almost a decade, I knew that my breathlessness was not normal. On level ground I coped, but climbing steps or a hill left me gasping for air. My mother, who never smoked, suffered from shortness of breath, so I just thought it ran in the family. It didn't really dawn on me that I was still so young and she was more than 30 years ahead of me.

In those days you didn't go to the doctor with shortness of breath, coughing or mucus. You just got on with it. When I felt unwell, I self-medicated with over-the-counter cough bottles. They smelled so nice that the whiff alone was sure to cure!

I was brought up in Limerick city. I loved animals, but this enthusiasm was thwarted by very little outdoor space at home, and I was content with two very lovable Yorkshire Terriers.

However, as soon as I bought my own house with an acre of land, a Saint Bernard dog was moving in too. In fact, I started to breed both Yorkshire Terriers and Saint Bernards, which brought me into the exciting world of Championship and Open Dog Shows. I, along with women's best friend, toured the country every weekend, and had such fun. Over the years my dog count increased to 12, not forgetting various cats and one pet goat.

However, a stressful job as an administrator, combined with my high maintenance four-legged friends, started to take its toll on my physical and mental health.

In 2000, at the age of 51, I could no longer ignore the warning signs: the shortness of breath, the unbearable cough, the never-ending chest infections, the bouts of depression, the chronic fatigue. The medical advice was now crystal clear. I had no option but to go 'cold turkey' and give up the cigarettes. My days of trying to run a Saint Bernard around a show ring had already come to an end. It was heart-breaking to give up something I loved so much.

I don't remember if the words 'chronic obstructive pulmonary disease' (COPD) were ever directly mentioned. Of course, I knew I was not well and that things were serious, but I had no idea how this disease was going to affect my life. Apart from the never-ending prescriptions for antibiotics and steroids, I was using a variety of inhalers and nebulisers for the more severe infections.

Of course, if I didn't immediately know I had COPD - people can confuse it for asthma, but it is perhaps better known as bronchitis or emphysema - it was soon very evident.

My consultant referred me to a six-week COPD pulmonary rehabilitation exercise programme in my local hospital with great results for my breathing, movement and energy levels. I tried to eat a healthy diet and to do more walking too.

Breathlessness is a very frightening experience and had I heeded the warning signs earlier, I could have been treated to try to slow the progress of the disease and prevent further lung damage. That is the importance of early diagnosis. Basic things like showering, getting dressed and getting out of the house take so much longer. I have to plan everything, especially if walking any distance on outings or going to events or travelling on holidays.

Today I am involved with the COPD Limerick Support Group, part of COPD Support Ireland, and we meet every Wednesday. Some members feel that there is a stigma to our disease, and that acquaintances think it is self-inflicted due to smoking. Yet more than 50pc of our group never smoked. Go figure.

A huge number of people who have COPD are in denial and remain undiagnosed. I would really encourage them to get the help and support that they need and to ask their doctor for a spirometry breathing test, which can diagnose COPD.

I often wonder what was the cause of my COPD. Was it my smoking? Was it exposure to toxins and fumes? Was it my family history? There is no question that this disease is life-changing but, right now I can say that I am a happy, outgoing person and I have learned to control my disease. I have accepted my limitations and know how to pace myself.

I am enjoying myself and living for today. Me, the dogs, Lucy the cat, and Willow, our pet goat. One big, happy family.

Today is World COPD Day, which raises awareness of the 300 million individuals living with COPD worldwide. For more information, visit

Irish Independent

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