WELLSTON — About a year ago, Anita Smith gave up.
Losing weight is difficult enough, but when you're 63 and suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it can feel impossible.
Smith was frustrated and didn't know what to do.
“And then I realized I have two wonderful boys, and I have nine grandkids and a great-grandchild, so I can't really give up,” Smith said. “They're my saving grace. They really are.”
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly referred to as COPD, is a serious lung disease which makes it hard to breathe, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. It's also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis.
The disease is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
COPD is a growing problem in Oklahoma and a major cause of chronic lower respiratory disease deaths, according to the state Health Department.
In a recent national survey, Oklahoma tied for fourth with West Virginia in the number of residents who reported a doctor had told them they had COPD.
Eight percent of Oklahomans surveyed said they had COPD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee reported higher rates.
Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, and secondhand smoke is associated with a 10 percent to 43 percent increase in risk in adults, according to the state Health Department.
For several years, Smith worked in casinos, which allow smoking indoors, and in movie theaters before smoking was banned. Smith isn't and hasn't ever been a smoker, she said.
She was diagnosed with COPD in 2011 after having open-heart surgery. She also suffers from sleep apnea.
Smith hasn't worked since her heart surgery but stays as busy as she can.
She lives on a 20-acre farm with her husband, some cattle, a few chickens and her cream-colored Labrador named Bandit.
“He has helped me get out of a lot of binds,” Smith said. “If I get into trouble and am in another room, he'll start growling at my husband, and he'll know it's time to come check on me.”
In the past few years, Smith has been in the hospital four or five times for chest pains and breathing problems. Her insurance covers about 80 percent of the cost.
Between her medicine and medical treatment, her average yearly out-of-pocket expense is between $5,000 and $7,000, she said.
John Walsh, co-founder and president of the COPD Foundation, said there is no cure for COPD. Rather, there are a handful of medications that control symptoms relatively well, Walsh said. COPD can cause permanent lung damage.
“We don't have medicines that will regenerate lung tissue that we lose, but that will happen some day,” he said.
Walsh also suffers from COPD. He has 34 percent of his lung function, meaning his lungs work one-third as well as they should.
If you can't function normally, if you can't breathe, nothing else matters, Walsh said.
People with COPD often times stop doing the things they love because of the impact the disease has on them, Walsh said.
“A lot of people will get depressed, and they'll stop doing what they used to be able to do, and they'll put on weight; they'll become obese; they'll develop diabetes,” Walsh said. “It's a vicious cycle, and it's important we get people diagnosed as fast as possible."
It's important for people with COPD to stay active, even if it's simply walking as much as they can muster, he said.
Walsh's ability to function each day is better than it was 10 years ago because he learned “how to take care of myself,” he said.
“If you do what your doctor tells you, and you stay as fit as you possibly can, and you stay active, there's no reason you can't live an all absolutely normal life,” Walsh said.
Long road ahead
Smith knows she has a long road ahead of her, but she also knows she has some control of where that road leads.
That's why she's trying again.
“I never used to worry about the quality of life, but since my surgery, I start to wonder — is there something I should have done differently, or what will I do to change what's happening right now?”
What is COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term referring to two lung diseases, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that are characterized by obstruction to airflow that interferes with normal breathing. Both of these conditions frequently coexist, hence physicians prefer the term COPD. It does not include other obstructive diseases such as asthma.