The Deadly Disease Many Men Still Don'T Know About
Robert Klein is an actor, singer, and stand-up comedian with nine HBO comedy specials and multiple Emmy, Tony, and Grammy nominations to his name. He's also a former smoker who had a two-pack-a-day habit for decades. For National Men's Health Week 2014, he shares how a diagnosis of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) spurred him to ditch cigarettes for good—and educate others about the serious dangers of smoking.
They say that laughter is the best medicine, but the truth is: It’s really hard to laugh when you can’t breathe. Breathing is rather essential to laughing, last time I checked, and also to, uh, being alive.
I always figured I could make any intelligent 11-year-old laugh, and at 73 I still feel that way, but most of my audience these days has already gone through puberty. And a lot of them have trouble breathing, like I do—like some 329 million people around the world do. I’ve got COPD, and so does an estimated 5 percent of the world’s population.
I know, I know, it’s hard to keep track of yet another acronym in today’s abbreviation-crazy world, so here it is: COPD is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. A lot of people have it. A lot of people don’t even know they have it. I didn’t know I had it until my physician, a close friend of mine since the old college days, asked me 15 years ago to blow into this little device with an opening the size of a toilet paper roll, to give him the best blow I could. Like most men my age, I’ve had colonoscopies—I actually performed an Emmy-nominated song about them, look it up—so even though I was skeptical of my doctor’s request, I was happy enough to participate in a medical test that allowed me to keep my pants on.
The truth is, I’d been feeling kind of worn out and fatigued, but I figured it was either the ulcers I got during my divorce 25 years ago or my heart requesting a bypass. When my doctor, a Pulmonologist, asked me to blow, I did. I took the deepest inhale I could, locked my lips around the little plastic device, and let it all out. The gizmo—called a spirometer—measures the force of your expiration, the breath you expel. My test revealed some impairment, some difficulty breathing, which led to the diagnosis of COPD. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that once you’ve got a diagnosis, you can actually plot a course of action. Too many of us forge our way through life without really knowing what’s going on, and so our decisions are not as solid as they might be.
Here’s the thing with COPD: what you don’t know can kill you. The symptoms of the disease for most people are chronic cough or bronchitis, increased sputum, shortness of breath, chest pressure, leg swelling, and bulging veins in the neck. Sounds like fun, right? The problem in America is there are a hundred people on any city block with one or more of those symptoms, people who can’t even walk around the block without losing their breath. We’re not the healthiest country on the planet, and that’s for a lot of reasons too numerous to mention or discuss here.
The bottom line is: Left unchecked, those symptoms will worsen over time—often very quickly—and eventually so overburden the rest of your organs that you’ll die. No doctor will be able to measure the expiration of your breath; you’ll just be expired like old eggs or cafeteria milk. Sadly, this is the case for a lot of people. In 2012, the World Health Organization reported that COPD was the third-leading cause of death in the world, right behind heart disease and falls down open elevator shafts. Or maybe it was strokes.
For me, and millions of Americans, medication is what keeps the COPD in check. It’s not a curable disease, so the best you can do is get it under control. I take Advair every morning and night, this non-steroidal prescription drug that comes in a very high-tech little plastic dispenser that looks like the pitch pipe an opera singer might use. (Though it would probably be hard to hit the high notes of “Nessun Dorma” if you have COPD.)
So how do you get COPD? Is it from a dirty toilet seat in a public restroom or a drunken exchange of fluids with a promiscuous leprechaun? I’m afraid it’s nothing so exotic or arousing. The simple fact is: According to a 2012 study at Oxford University, between 80 to 95 percent of those who suffer from COPD are, or were, smokers. Oxford adds that about 20 percent of smokers will eventually get COPD.
Are you at risk for COPD? Take this quiz and find out.
Growing up, I went to an all-boys high school in the Bronx. There were 4,000 boys in the school and the administration needed to figure out some way to release the pressure valve on all of that testosterone, so if you finished your lunch early, they’d let you go out on the balcony and have a smoke. I was 15. I didn’t become a regular smoker until college, but then I smoked the better part of two packs a day for, cumulatively, 15 or 20 years. I was like Mark Twain, who said, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” I figured it was probably worth emulating the guy who had written some of the nation’s greatest novels, not to mention growing one of history’s finest mustaches, so I’d quit, then start again, then quit, then start again.
What I’m saying is: I know how hard it is to quit smoking and I understand that as a smoker it’s sometimes embarrassing to go to your doctor with health problems you know are related to smoking. But you must get over it. It’s life or death, really. A few years back, the pharmacology company Boehringer Ingelheim sent me on a national tour to raise awareness about COPD—which, somehow, a lot of people still don’t know about—and I can’t tell you how many awful, heartbreaking stories I heard from people suffering from the disease.
Some of them were smokers. Some of them had been smokers, but had quit 30 years ago. They were really angry, like, “I gave up something I really enjoyed three decades ago, and I’m getting sick anyway?” But the worst cases for me, I think, were the people who had COPD and had never smoked. They’d just gotten second- or third-hand smoke, or been too long exposed to the air pollution in big cities, or had some genetic predisposition, which is very rare. You know, in life, even when you’re making all the right decisions, it’s still a risky proposition.
Lung cancer gets all the press when it comes to smoking, but COPD is just as deadly, statistically speaking, and I think as more and more people learn about the disease and get tested, those stats will really skyrocket. I would hope that a few years after that, with proper diagnosis, information, and medication, the numbers will begin to decline. I really hope that’s what happens.
So I’m 73 years old, I’ve got COPD, I take medication to keep it under control, and I’m doing just fine. But I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a 30-year-old son who loves to play basketball, and I plan on giving him a run for his money on the court for years to come and maybe get around to doing a 10th HBO comedy special, if you can believe it.
I don’t smoke anymore. I work out three or four times a week with a personal trainer. I don’t know if I could kick the ass of a 40-year-old Robert Klein, but that would probably be a fun tape to watch.
-As told to J. Rentilly
For more National Men's Health Week information, click here for the 10 Facts You Must Know About COPD.