Short of breath: For Canadian women, COPD deaths surpass those from breast cancer

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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2014-05-12

Much attention has recently focused on screening tests like mammography, and the risk that they can lead to unnecessary and sometimes harmful invasive procedures. In contrast, the simple and relatively inexpensive spirometry test, when it confirms a diagnosis of COPD, paves the way for non-invasive steps that can improve health.

“A lot of doctors think they don’t need the test to diagnose COPD and then can just treat,” says Pat Camp, an assistant professor and clinician scientist in the department of physical therapy at the University of British Columbia. They would never think that about another chronic condition like hypertension, she adds.

Efforts at prevention and early diagnosis must, as Day argues, be stepped up. But for those who already have COPD, the merry-go-round of emergency ward visits and hospital admissions that are characteristic of a COPD diagnosis, can be significantly reduced with different approaches to caring for people with COPD. One example is the INSPIRED program in Halifax, Nova Scotia that stresses emotional and community-based support.

Donaldson, who smoked for 40 years before she quit, is in that respect typical of the patients for whom Camp provides pulmonary rehabilitation. COPD takes a long time to develop and most of her patients have smoked for 30 or 40 years, she says.

Camp, who has conducted research into women and COPD, nonetheless says such research is still “in its infancy.” Still, there is evidence that women are more vulnerable to the effects of smoking, likely due to factors such as their smaller size (and lung capacity) and the impact of hormones and inflammatory response. 

Internationally, women who regularly tend open fires for cooking food are vulnerable to developing COPD because of their exposure to the smoke, Camp points out.

Donaldson now travels twice a week to Ottawa to join 15 others for a group program of exercise and support for their COPD. “I can now do 20 minutes on a treadmill …and last summer I went outside for a 20 minute walk,” she enthuses. “It improves your life.”

Donaldson has also improved the lives of others. She says her condition “scared the living daylights” out of her family, and led her children and their spouses to quit smoking. “Now they’ve all quit except one grandson, who is 33 years old.”

Oh yes, and after that problem she had convincing her family physician to take her concerns seriously? A new clinic opened up in town and she switched doctors.

Ann Silversides is an independent journalist and author who specializes in health policy.

Additional resource:

Self-treatment results in lower overall health care costs for COPD sufferers,, May 17, 2009