By Jelena Djurkic

When I sat down with Mary Walsh recently, I was expecting to find the same bubbly comedian we’ve all seen tackling down politicians on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. But the 58-year-old got serious when it came to talking about her family’s experience with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

COPD, which includes diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is a long-term lung disease. It damages your airways; the breathing tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs, making it harder to breathe. Symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue and frequent chest infections.

As the Canadian Lung Association’s spokesperson on COPD, Walsh had been up since 3 a.m. when we spoke Wednesday, hoping to raise awareness of this little-known disease. It was also World COPD Day.

A recent study found that 90 per cent of Canadians have never heard of spirometry, a simple breathing test used to diagnose COPD. Some people aren’t even aware of the disease. But while the average Canadian may not know about it, many are affected. About 1.5 million Canadians are living with COPD.

Why should you care? There is an increased prevalence of COPD in women, says Carole Madeley, a respiratory therapist and director of respiratory health programs at the Ontario Lung Association.

“It’s a matter of encouraging people to get tested for the first time. People just aren’t aware,” said Madeley. If diagnosed, COPD is treatable. “You could live a very normal life or you could have a very disabled life.”

Walsh has three family members who have been affected by the disease. Her sister Laura has a mild case, but lives a relatively normal life. Her cousin Mary’s COPD, on the other hand, is more severe. At a recent family wedding, her cousin had to bring four oxygen tanks along with her in order to attend the wedding.

“She’s enslaved to an oxygen tank,” said Walsh, who has had her own respiratory problems over the years including episodes of pneumonia. “People need to know about this (disease).”

People over 40 and who smoke or live with smokers are at a greater risk for COPD and should be tested. A spirometry test can take from 10 to 30 minutes. Patients blow into a machine to measure how much air they can blow out of their lungs and how fast they can do it.

“You should be able to live your life and make enough changes to live a long, reasonable and breathy life,” said Walsh.

For more information on COPD or to find a local spirometry clinic, visit or call 1-866-717-COPD (2673). In Quebec, call 1-866-717-MPOC (6762).


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