By Edi Mesa, as told to Hallie Levine
I was diagnosed with COPD about 6 years ago at the age of 22. I battled sarcoma lung cancer in my teens, which damaged my lungs. But finding out I had COPD was more shattering. I could hide cancer, but I couldn’t hide my COPD.
I always saw myself sky diving and hiking, but the reality is that something as simple as a long car ride can take a toll on me and lead to bedrest for several days. But I’ve also found that certain lifestyle changes can give me relief from some of my worst COPD symptoms. Here’s what I do:
I always wear a mask. When mask mandates went into place during the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t bat an eye: I’ve been wearing them for years. Here in California, I live in a big dust bowl. Just going outside can trigger a COPD flare. I love Vogmasks. They’re expensive -- about $30 each -- but high quality and stylish. I put them on everywhere I go, whether it’s to the grocery store or just outdoors for a walk. Before COVID, I’d get a lot of stares, and people moved away from me. Now everyone wears them, so it doesn’t seem so unusual. It’s gotten to the point where if I don’t wear one when I leave my house, I feel it. After a couple of hours, I find that I can’t take a full breath anymore.
I exercise every day. Research shows that the more fit you are, the better your quality of life with COPD. I’ve always been active, but a couple of years ago I added in strength training as well. I started with 2-pound weights and did very simple exercises like bicep curls and arm circles. Over time, I worked my way up to heavier ones. I also did pulmonary rehabilitation in 2019, which helped a lot. The instructor really pushed me. If I was biking, for example, he never let me get a sympathy break or fully catch my breath. It was difficult, but it gave me confidence. I realized that I could push myself farther than I’d ever thought.
I also try to do 10 to 15 minutes of yoga every day. I focus on vinyasa, which is the breathing form of yoga. The poses stretch those back and chest muscles so our lungs won’t have to work as hard. Regular exercise can lower your resting heart rate and blood pressure. That helps your body use oxygen more efficiently. I credit my workouts with making me less susceptible to flare-ups because my lungs no longer have to work as hard. Regular exercise lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, so your body can use oxygen more efficiently, and also strengthens chest muscles, which improves breathing.
I eat a plant-based diet. I switched over to an entirely plant-based diet about a year ago. I eat plenty of fruits, veggies, seeds, nuts, beans, and my favorite, tofu. I also avoid highly processed foods like white sugar and flour. Since then, I’ve noticed a decrease in both the frequency and severity of my COPD flares. I think one reason is simply that I’ve lost weight, so my lungs don’t have to work as hard. But these foods are all also rich in antioxidants, which can help ease inflammation in your body. A plant-based diet also provides high levels of important vitamins like A, C, and E, all of which have been linked to an improvement in COPD symptoms. When I want a snack, I opt for foods high in healthy fats, like pretzels with hummus, or even a few squares of dark chocolate.
I lean on virtual friends. One of the hardest things about living with COPD is the isolation. I don't have friends my age because I can’t keep up with what they do. I’ve tried holding onto them over the years, but since I can’t go to clubs or parties, many people slowly remove themselves. Thankfully, I’ve found folks I can connect with through online activities such as Xbox. I have one friend in Mississippi and one in Oklahoma that I chat with every day. I’m also very lucky to have a twin sister, as well as another brother, who constantly check in on me and don’t let me feel so alone. Some people swear by support groups, but I haven’t been able to find an in-person one in my area, and I never really felt like I clicked with people I met in groups online.
I stay organized. Stress can lead to COPD flares, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. But unfortunately, when you live with this disease, you also experience a lot of anxiety. In those moments where I start to spiral, I reorganize my closet or rearrange all the items in my kitchen cupboards. It keeps my mind occupied, and also gives me a sense of control, which is very reassuring. It also allows me to declutter. If you have too much junk in one place, it accumulates dust and even mold, which can trigger a COPD flare.
I invest in air purifiers. I have one in every single room of my house. It helps with my allergies, so I don’t sneeze as much. When you have COPD, sneezing is quite painful. I also use dehumidifiers, since I’ve noticed that humidity can trigger COPD symptoms.
I trust my instincts. If I don’t like what my doctor has told me, I get a second, third, or even a fourth opinion. Usually, I’m spot on. A couple years ago, for example, I didn’t feel comfortable with the fact that my lung doctor just wanted to give me a ton of medications. I saw a few other COPD specialists and ended up having a bullectomy. That’s a surgical procedure to remove the air sacs in the lungs that have been enlarged from COPD. It was life changing. I may not be able to scale mountains, but I can make it to the grocery store or walk for 30 minutes on my treadmill, which is all that matters. It just helps me get some of my old quality of life back.