YOGA instructor Anita Brough had no idea what COPD was – until she was diagnosed with the incurable lung condition aged just 48.
She said: "I’d been breathless for months and just put it down to stress.
"Finding out I had a killer respiratory disease was devastating - especially as my lungs were so damaged.
"They looked on scans like they were 30 years older than the rest of me."
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, makes it difficult to breathe air out because either the airways are permanently inflamed and narrowed or air gets trapped in the lungs.
Despite affecting 1.5million people in the UK, and being the third biggest killer in the world, awareness of the classic tell-tale symptoms - breathlessness, a constant cough, wheezing and excess mucus – is pitifully low.
"I just had no idea," says now-58-year-old Anita, who had been breathless and coughing for months before she finally saw her GP.
"I’d urge anyone who is frequently out of breath to see their doctor urgently."
Although there is no cure for COPD, early treatment can slow down lung damage.
At the time of her diagnosis in 2013, Anita was going through a stressful time, looking after a sick relative.
"My own health really wasn’t on my radar," she said.
"Besides, I’d never had to worry as I’d always been so fit and full of energy.
"For years I did bootcamp and trampolining classes three or four times a year.
"One night, I was visiting the hospital when I suddenly realised I was struggling to get up the flight of stairs to the ward."
It was a moment of clarity for Anita who months earlier had been able to race up them.
Unable to ignore her symptoms any longer, Anita visited her GP and was referred to a respiratory consultant for lung tests.
Her diagnosis came as a terrible shock.
She said: "Being told I had an incurable lung condition was like being punched in the stomach.
"But when tests showed I had the lungs of an 80-year-old woman, that just left me reeling."
What made things worse for Anita was learning her condition had such a strong link to smoking.
For 20 years, she’d been a social smoker – although she rarely had more than five cigarettes a day.
She said: “Having that diagnosis was like wearing a badge of shame that said, 'I’ve got a horrible illness and it’s all my fault'.
"It didn’t feel fair as smoking is an addiction like any other."
I literally went from being this award-winning businesswoman to being too afraid to leave the house.
Although tobacco is the main cause of COPD, with research from the charity Asthma + Lung UK revealing that almost nine out of 10 people with the condition have a history of smoking, there are other causes too, such as childhood deprivation and exposure to toxic fumes at work.
"COPD is often referred to as ‘the smoker’s disease’ and there’s a terrible stigma attached to that," said Anita, who strongly supports government plans to create a smoke-generation by raising the legal age for buying tobacco by one year every year.
For Anita, the main thing she felt after her diagnosis was fear not shame.
"I literally went from being this award-winning businesswoman to being too afraid to leave the house," she said.
"I used to speak at huge conferences, but as my breathing got worse, the thought of being on stage and not being able to get my words out really terrified me.
"It felt like there was this permanent cord around my chest that was being pulled tighter and tighter every day.
"I was so scared of doing all the things I used to love as I had visions of ending up in hospital on an oxygen machine.
"The illness completely changed me."
Her fear wasn’t entirely misplaced. Although little known, COPD is the leading cause of emergency hospital admissions in the UK, and costs almost 27,000 lives a year.
'CONSTANTLY FELT LIKE I WAS DROWNING'
Over those next few years, Anita had several serious chest infections, or ‘exacerbations’, which would often land her in bed for three weeks at a time.
She said: "It was like breathing through a straw. I constantly felt like I was drowning."
By then, exercise was a thing of the past. Once a trim size eight, over the next five years, Anita ballooned to a size 18.
Then one day in 2017, as she was sorting through her wardrobe, preparing to throw her ‘thin’ clothes out, she had an epiphany.
"I’d let lung disease change who I was, and how I looked. Suddenly my mind just screamed, 'No!," she said.
Determined to get her life back on track, Anita, who lives with her husband Mark in Sheffield, joined a local walking group.
"It was tiny steps at first, but it felt fantastic to be active again," said Anita, who also found solace in her local Asthma + Lung UK Breathe Easy group.
"Nobody seems to know what COPD is unless they know someone with the condition so it was brilliant to have that support."
I’m learning to embrace a new life within my limitations. I feel lucky to have that chance.
"I started to feel so much better," said Anita, whose latest tests showed she had miraculously shaved 12 years off her lung age.
Nevertheless, living with a serious lung condition wasn’t easy.
Unable to speak publicly for fear of losing her breath, Anita had to give up her business, and take on a less demanding role.
In 2020, she made the decision to give up work altogether, and has retrained as a yoga instructor.
Anita does not need medication and has never been admitted to hospital with her symptoms – something she attributes to her commitment to exercise and yogic breath work.
She now does seven-mile walks three times a week, and loves all forms of yoga, including aerial yoga – which involves hanging from a hammock.
Her dream is to start teaching everything she has learnt over the years to other people with lung disease.
"With a condition like COPD, there’s so much you can’t do," said Anita, who finds flying difficult, and has to avoid extreme temperatures, traffic fumes, and even bonfires because they all trigger her symptoms.
"But I’m learning to embrace a new life within my limitations. I feel lucky to have that chance."
What is COPD?
COPD is an umbrella term for a group of incurable lung conditions, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that make it difficult to breathe air out from the lungs.
It mainly affects people over 50 with a history of smoking.
According to Asthma + Lung UK, the classic symptoms include breathlessness, a persistent cough, wheezing and mucus.
COPD is a progressive illness with no cure.
It differs from asthma because the airways are permanently narrowed and inflamed.
With asthma, this only occurs when someone is exposed to a trigger such as cigarette smoke or a virus.
People with COPD can have life-threatening flare-ups or exacerbations which can result in a hospital admission.
If treated at home, doctors will prescribe steroids and antibiotics.
Some people with COPD take inhalers, those with more extreme cases, might need oxygen therapy or even a lung transplant.
Being active with a lung condition can improve quality of life by boosting the immune system, strengthening your muscles, including your breathing muscles, which will make you less out of breath performing everyday tasks and enabling you to walk further.
Source: Asthma + Lung UK