Breathing Easy Is a Special Gift

Last night, between bouts of coughing fits, I had a sudden realization about the extraordinary privilege that has graced most of my life. I'm not talking about political or social privilege, but rather the very special gift of being able to take a breath without struggling. It is something most of us take for granted. Breathing, after all, is an automated response, over which we have relatively little control. At least, when things are working properly.

Rethinking the way I see lung diseases

I certainly knew about asthma as a child and knew more than one fellow kid with an inhaler. As for myself, I suffered from bronchitis until about the age of 10, but saw it only as more inconvenience than difficulty. While I did experience shortness of breath prior to my diagnosis at age 46, I assumed -- and rightfully so -- that it was due to a temporary lung infection. It turns out that after years of treatment for my lung cancer, I am quite a lot more prone to those pesky lung infections.

Though I used to think of lung cancer as more of an old folks disease, and envisioned patients walking around with oxygen tanks, I have since met people from distinct walks of life, a wide variety of ages, and an even wider range of health conditions who have some form of this disease. There are young and healthy members in this club. It includes people with partial lungs as well as those with two strong ones. There are folks with one lung who are long-distance distance runners and in fantastic shape and there are people who never had an operation but retain a constant wheeze.

Inspiration from all lung disease advocates

But these lung issues are not relegated solely to lung cancer patients. There are conditions like the aforementioned asthma and bronchitis that, when chronic, may cause particular difficulty in life, or even threatened it completely. Beyond that are genetic diseases like Cystic Fibrosis. CF is an extremely dangerous disease for young people. I have walked in fundraisers on numerous occasions in support of research for Cystic Fibrosis. And I am amazed by the optimism and strength of many of the CF patients I have met or seen. And this optimism is in spite of the likelihood that many will not live to see their 30th birthday.

What made me appreciate my lungs

Up until recently, I related to conditions like CF through shared experiences like hospital visits and the minor concerns of lung health in general. The enzymes and drugs that CF patients consume on a daily basis seemed similar enough to the targeted therapies I would take orally at home. These were routines that helped bridge some small level of understanding. But it wasn't until I would wake up wheezing or gasping for air that this sense of privilege really struck home.

I realize that the average of 433 Americans who die every day from lung cancer is itself indicative of a large amount of suffering. But beyond this who died, there are thousands struggling to get their breath all of the time. And when you consider all of these conditions, there are millions who may be struggling at any given moment, and who are constantly aware that any breath could be their last.

Every breath is a gift

Yet I retain my privilege. With my jar of antibiotics, I am confident that no matter how prone I may be to getting these infections, at least for now they remain temporary. I still have two good lungs and they scan, infections aside, mostly clear these days. Still, my privilege will only remain with equal vigilance and good fortune. And I will remain appreciative of every future breath I take.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

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