The popular phrase, perennially associated with pleasant surprises, now has an entirely new and often tragic meaning.

Today, more than 7 million women in the United States have been diagnosed with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) a progressive and horrific lung ailment which slowly and permanently robs its sufferers of the ability to draw life-sustaining breath.

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the USA, surpassed only by heart disease and cancer. While there is no known cure there is a definitive cause: SMOKING. Ironically, while a current national TV commercial depicts an elephant sitting on a middle aged man’s chest as being the prototypical depiction of what it is like to suffer from COPD, the reality is that gender roles and smoking behaviors have shifted in recent decades. Today, the number of deaths among women from COPD has more than quadrupled (just since l980) and tragically, since the year 2000, across the United States, the disease has claimed the lives of more women than men annually.

Nationwide, the American Lung Association statistics show that 7 million women in the USA have COPD, while likely millions more have the symptoms of the disease, but have yet to be diagnosed. The typical woman with COPD is most likely to be white, reside in Appalachia, and have an income below the poverty level. Women are biologically, emotionally, and culturally different than men. Women living with COPD have a more difficult time quitting smoking, have more disease flare-ups, and utilize more healthcare resources. They also suffer more from co-occurring chronic conditions, including depression, and have an overall lower quality of life.

The American Lung Association statistics confirm that while smoking was relatively rare among women at the turn of the century, the tobacco industry’s campaigns encouraging women to ‘enjoy’ smoking have been woefully too successful. In the late 1920s, the Lucky Strike brand launched its then-revolutionary “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” campaign—targeted at women. Later, Phillip Morris introduced Virginia Slims, the first cigarette created specifically for women. With the advertising slogan “You’ve come a Long Way Baby,” Virginia Slims was massively appealing to women’s new-found sense of liberation. By 1973, less than six years after the introduction of Virginia Slims, the rate of 12 year old girls who started smoking had increased by 110 percent. Since that time, nationwide anti-tobacco campaigns and policy changes have successfully decreased smoking rates for both men and women. But sadly, the old TV ads that declared to women “You’ve got your own cigarette now” are still resulting in new cases of COPD and other tobacco-related illnesses in those women as they have aged.

Women are more vulnerable than are men to lung damage from cigarette smoke and other pollutants. Estrogen plays a role in worsening the lung damage by altering the way nicotine in the body is broken down into harmful compounds. The fact that women with COPD are 1.5 times more likely to have never smoked than men with COPD is a good indication that they are also at greater risk from other causes of the disease, such as secondhand smoke, harmful workplace exposures, and outdoor air pollution.

In the fore-front of the fight for healthy lungs and healthy air, the American Lung Association is dedicated to improving lung health and preventing lung disease. For over 100 years, the organization’s mission has been to improve lung health by preventing lung disease. Whether it’s searching for cures for lung diseases, keeping kids off tobacco or fighting for laws that protect the air we all breathe, the work of the American Lung Association strives to save lives every day.

Kentucky needs more research, advocacy, education and awareness to diagnose and treat lung disease in women earlier. The American Lung Association is working diligently to fight lung disease in women, to save lives, and to improve lung health. Realizing that knowledge is power, the organization, along with UK HealthCare, is staging a ‘Breath of Life Luncheon’ and symposium on women’s lung health on Tuesday, November 19th at the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort on Newtown Pike. The focus of this event is to raise awareness about the disproportionate incidence of lung disease among women in our community, and to raise much needed funds for lung health research in Kentucky. The event will feature a dual track agenda: Track 1 is for Healthcare Professionals, while Track 2 is for a general audience (specifically for individuals who have been diagnosed with COPD, or are caregivers for others who have the disease.)

The event will feature exhibits and educational sessions, as well as a luncheon. Featured speakers for Track One (Healthcare Professionals) are David Mannino, MD, Professor and Chair of the UK College of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Kentucky: COPD in Women; Angela Mahan, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Kentucky. Concurrent speakers for Track Two (for patients, families, and those concerned about general lung health) are: Representatives from the American Lung Association: “Keeping Lungs Healthy,” and Support for Women as Caregivers, Tami Cappelletti, RT, Program Manager, American Lung Association, Louisville.

The luncheon speakers will be Janice Nolan, Assistant Vice President of National Policy and Advocacy, American Lung Association, and Representative Susan Westrom, Kentucky House of Representatives.

This special event is designed to raise awareness of the disproportionate incidence of lung disease among women, and to help raise much needed funds for lung health research in Kentucky. “Take Away” facts that could save a woman’s life are:

• Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer of women in America, killing more than breast, ovarian and cervical cancers combined.

• Deaths from lung cancer among women have risen 150% in the last decade, while lung cancer deaths among men are decreasing.

• Because COPD has long been thought of as a man’s disease, many doctors still do not expect to see it in women, and consequently miss the proper diagnosis. When a woman goes to her doctor with breathing problems, they typically discuss physical symptoms and her history of exposure to risk factors. Even though the answers to these questions are valuable indicators of COPD, doctors tend to diagnose asthma due to somewhat similar symptoms and disease symptoms.

• Effective treatment of COPD is complicated, and women don’t always get the kind of care that meets their needs. Quitting smoking has more of a positive impact on the health of COPD patients who are still smoking than any other type of treatment, and women with COPD actually benefit from quitting more than men; however, women have more trouble successfully staying smoke free. 

Posted on 2013-11-19 by Mary Ellen Slone