Cecil Montgomery, a 64-year-old veteran and retired auto mechanic from Morrilton, Ark., started smoking when he was only 14. He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder ( COPD)—the fourth leading cause of death in the United States—at an early age, 37. Still, he couldn't quit smoking. One day he lit up and coughed until he passed out and turned blue. This near-death experience (doctors resuscitated him in the ER) finally got him to kick the habit. It has been estimated that between 80% and 90% of COPD-related deaths are linked to smoking. COPD is a progressive illness that includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

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When I went for my yearly army physical in 1983, I found out I had emphysema. It was a bit of a shock; although I had frequent colds and often got bronchitis, I didn't have much trouble breathing. I was only 37 and I had COPD.

The army couldnt refuse to let me reenlist, but they suggested I retire, even though I was still in pretty good shape. I started working as an auto mechanic. By 1989 I was missing work all the time. Pneumonia was a semiannual event—every spring, every fall. I was in and out of the emergency room. Eventually I started my own part-time mechanic business so I could just close my doors when I wasnt feeling well. In 1993, during another bout of pneumonia, a fungus started growing in my lungs. Something was actually growing in my lungs! After the exacerbation, which is an episode in which COPD gets worse due to an infection, my doctor said I would probably have even more problems. The fungus did severe damage. That was when I had to retire for good.

After I retired, I sat around doing nothing and gained a lot of weight. I was also still smoking about a pack and a half a day, just as I had been doing ever since my first cigarette at age 14. On March 4, 1998, at around 10:30 p.m., I went to the bathroom. As usual when I went to the bathroom, I lit a cigarette. I started coughing and I couldnt stop. I turned blue and passed out. My wife called 911 and they took me to the emergency room. Even though the hospital isnt far from where we live, I was clinically dead by the time we got there. They brought me back to life in the ER. The doctor told me if I didnt make some serious changes, I wouldnt live more than six months. I told him right there that I would never smoke another cigarette, and I havent.

Chronic does not mean terminal
The first thing I did after quitting smoking was talk to a friend who had also quit to slow down his COPD. He mentioned an online support group called COPD-Support that he was a part of. I went right out and bought a computer. Doctors can be very vague about COPD because they dont really understand it completely, but here were patients who could tell me things doctors couldnt about living with this disease.

People often feel theres not much they can do about their COPD; theres no cure for it. Well, its chronic, but its not terminal. Ive had it for more than 25 years. Most people are so depressed when they are diagnosed that the first thing they think is terminal. Weve had a heck of a time trying to get people to drop that expression from their vocabulary. The only way youre going to die is if you dont take care of yourself. You cant blame it all on COPD.

Instead, I tell people to take the time to find out about treatment options. Ive found that people rarely know about pulmonary rehabilitation, which can be of great assistance. Rehab includes organized exercise programs, physical therapists, and pulmonary therapists. More important, though, are the classes on how to take your medication, breathe easier, and eat well. I wish more people were aware of it; pulmonary rehabilitation can be a lifesaver.

What's more, people should also be more informed about early detection. Doctors dont tell you that anyone over 35 who has smoked for longer than 20 years should ask for a pulmonary function test at least once a year. Its all about early detection, prevention, education, and care.

[ pagebreak ]You only live as long as you take care of yourself
Support groups are useless if you don't make some changes in your lifestyle, such as exercising, quitting smoking, and eating a healthy diet. Youre only going to live as long as you take care of yourself. For example, my younger brother and my older brothers wife both recently passed away from COPD.

She knew they needed to quit smoking, but he wouldnt try, and she couldnt quit while he was still smoking. It became this vicious cycle. I would try to talk to him, but he wouldnt listen to me, even though I know a lot about COPD. I wrote a book called 100 Questions & Answers About COPD with Dr. Campion E. Quinn, but to my brother I was just his older sibling, not an expert.

I monitor my health daily and record how I feel in a journal. I take my medicine as prescribed, and I test my blood pressure, blood sugar, and oxygen levels, as well as weigh myself, every morning. Im on oxygen 24/7, but I still push myself to stay active when I can. I do a lot of work around the house. Sometimes I ride an exercise bike or use hand weights. But I know my limits. Today I had to walk from the far side of a parking lot, and on my way I started breathing really hard. When I see my lungs pushing out of my chest really hard like that, I know I need to stop and rest. I also use three inhalers—Spiriva, Foradil, and Asmanex—and take theophylline, a medicine that relaxes the muscles in the lungs and chest so I can breathe more easily.

Support groups offer a lifeline
When I first joined the support group, I didnt know anything about COPD, except what the doctor told me, which was basically nothing. Now Im on the board of directors of COPD-Support, and I started my own group called COPD Survivors. Theres always someone there to help you when you need it. If one of us in the group goes to the doctor and learns something new, we post it to the group, and everyone can benefit from that individual's doctor visit. Thats how I first learned I could buy medications from overseas sources for a third of the price. The more experiences we share, the better people can care for themselves.

Around 2000, I was doing pretty well. It was a couple of years after I had quit smoking, my lung function was around 30%, and I had lost some weight, even though I had just been diagnosed with diabetes. I felt normal.

But you cant keep COPD from progressing with age. I had a heart attack in 2006 and it turns out I had an earlier one I never knew about. Today my lung function is around 18%. Specialists say you should be lying in bed doing nothing at 18%. But just the other day I put new siding on my carport and storage shed! I had a friend help with the heavy lifting, but I did my share. You cant do it all, but you do the best you can.