The Carousel spoke to sporting hero Cathy Freeman about her own experiences with asthma, how to reduce the stigma around lung disease and her personal tips on breathing easy.
Seven million Australians, the equivalent to one in four of us, have a chronic respiratory disease. Cathy Freeman discovered she had asthma at age 18 and she says it has worsened since. Here, she shares her remarkable story and gives us all sage advice about taking care of our lungs.
When did you first realise your lungs were not healthy?
By the time I was in high school my running career was already taking flight. However, when I was 18 something happened that left me with an uneasy feeling. I had my first asthma attack.
At the time I was training in Darwin. One day I just couldn’t stop wheezing. Looking back, I think the grass pollen triggered it, but I just put it out of my mind.
How has lung disease affected your life?
Over the years my asthma worsened which culminated in a stressful meet at the 1997 World Championships in Athens. It was polluted and unbearably hot – up to 45C every day. I was struggling to breathe. It was so scary. Even after comfortable runs I was just gasping. I knew I wasn’t unfit and that things had gotten really bad.
I was diagnosed with exercise induced asthma which is triggered by vigorous physical exertion. I was prescribed preventative puffers and Ventolin and from then on made sure that my puffers were on hand after every race.
Even after I won the 400m gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics I was breathing quite heavily, trying to gulp in as much air as possible.
Then, over a decade ago, I was diagnosed with full blown asthma.
How has lung disease affected you as an athlete and personally?
Despite being diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma in my 20s and full-blown asthma over ten years ago, it was only a few years ago that I finally came to terms with my condition.
I realised I was never relaxed and was feeling rather anxious. My muscles were tense and my chest became heavy. I couldn’t breathe properly. It was then that the penny dropped and I realised I needed to start taking my medication properly.
Up until then, I just didn’t want to admit I had asthma. As a former professional athlete it didn’t sit well with me, and I was only able to fully accept the condition earlier this year.
As a former professional athlete whose identity has always been defined by health and fitness, coming to terms with asthma has been an internal struggle. I just didn’t want to have it so I ignored it. But it got to a point where I said to myself, ‘Suck it up princess and get on with it’. Now I’m myself and feel so much better.
So when I was asked by Lung Foundation Australia to become an ambassador for their ‘Just One Breath’ initiative, I didn’t hesitate. The campaign aims to inspire conversations about lung health and I’m passionate about helping others because I see myself in other people – I don’t feel I’m any different to anyone else.
What are your top three tips for coping with your lung disease?
I try to strengthen my lungs through exercise, healthy living and avoiding asthma triggers. I also make sure I get plenty of rest and keep my water intake up.
Why do you think there is stereotyping of lung disease patients?
People commonly think of lung disease as a smoker’s disease. When really, the personal faces of lung disease can be surprising.
Lung disease doesn’t discriminate – it affects the young, old, male, female, smokers, former-smokers, and non-smokers.
Why did you want to become an ambassador for ‘Just One Breath’?
I’m proud to be working with Lung Foundation Australia to put a face to lung disease in Australia. By sharing my own story, I hope to encourage Australians to start talking about their own lung health. As an athlete, I know the importance of lung health, and I know how poor health can affect your life.
Australian adults rarely think about the health of their lungs, but they need to. It’s time we started to take the issue a lot more seriously. I strongly believe all Australians need to do the Lung Health Checklist, found at justonebreath.com.au.
I’m passionate about helping others, because I see myself in other people. I’d love to put a face to lung disease, to help change the current stigma and get people talking.
What’s more, Indigenous people die of lung disease at a rate three times higher than non-Indigenous Australians. When I heard that statistic I was shocked but sadly not surprised. Asthma and lung ailments unfortunately run in my own family and is something that has caused serious concern for us over the years.
Most people think they have no lung issues. The fact is that almost one in three Australians have a lung condition, whether it be asthma, cancer, bronchiectasis or pulmonary disease.
What has been the most rewarding part of your partnership so far?
I recently spent time at an indigenous school in Albury talking about lung health. It was so wonderful to spend time with the community talking about wellbeing.
I’ve always had a passion when it comes to unlocking other people’s potential. I know not every kid will aspire to be a neurosurgeon. But they can still aspire to be the best they can be both physically and mentally.
Keeping yourself happy, healthy and motivated just makes for a better community all round.
What are your hopes for the future of lung disease in Australia?
That there will be a greater consciousness for lung disease symptoms. Breathing is our simplest bodily action, though it if often overlooked or taken for granted.
People need to realise their full potential and be the best they can be – including with their health. I’d love if everyone could pay more attention to lung health, and continue to have important conversations with their doctor if they have concerns.
You can take the lung health check at www.lungfoundation.com.au/checklist/ to help recognise symptoms of lung disease, and stimulate the conversation to take control of lung disease in Australia.
7 Shocking Facts About Lung Disease
- Lung disease is not just cancer. It also includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, respiratory infection (like cold and flu, pneumonia), bronchiectasis, cystic fibrosis, chronic cough, pulmonary fibrosis and more.
- More than 1 in 4 Australians has a chronic respiratory disease
- 1 in 7 deaths in Australia is related to lung disease
- Indigenous people die of lung disease at a rate about 2.5 times higher than non-indigenous Australians
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the second leading cause of avoidable hospitalisation
- Lung cancer is still the biggest cancer killer in Australia
- More women die of lung cancer than of breast and ovarian cancer combined