The first woman to win an IndyCar race is now aiming to smash another barrier: lack of public awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
By Ian Hodder
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As a NASCAR and IndyCar driver, Danica Patrick knows the importance of free-flowing air systems in her vehicles. As the granddaughter of an emphysema patient, she knows the deadly toll of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
When Patrick became the first woman to win an IndyCar race, she broke the "glass track." She's now aiming to smash another barrier: Lack of public awareness of COPD, which killed her paternal grandmother. COPD is a collective term for emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and other lung disorders. Causes include cigarette smoke and air pollution.
Patrick’s grandmother, a retired businesswoman in Beloit, Wis., died of emphysema in her mid-sixties, when Danica was almost 20. In honor of “Grandma,” Patrick, 27, is leading a COPD-awareness initiative called DRIVE4COPD (sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim). Just days before she made headlines with her first foray into NASCAR racing, Patrick spoke about her grandmother and COPD.
Everyday Health: Were you always aware of your grandmother’s condition?
Danica Patrick:I was always aware, but when I was younger, everything was fine. She was a smoker. It wasn’t until I was into my teenage years that I noticed what was going on - that she was having a hard time breathing, that she was so uncomfortable. I left home for a few years - I lived in England for a while, racing - so during the faster stages of the disease I was not there. So I saw her at the end - on oxygen all day, in a wheelchair, and really thin.
When you’re away, and don’t see someone, the changes seem extreme. Especially in this situation, because the disease is progressive. It gets worse all the time if you don’t do something about it.
Everyday Health: Do you remember other symptoms?
Danica Patrick:I don't know all of her symptoms, but she had the usual ones. I remember her going to hospitals all the time because she was uncomfortable and wasn't able to breathe. She spent a lot of time doing that - traveling to hospitals.
Everyday Health: Did her illness influence your relationship with her?
Danica Patrick:Well, no - because I was a teenager and I wasn't going over to grandmother's house anymore. I wanted to go where my friends were going, and that's the sad part of the story. Now I would be more aware of family, and I'd take the time to go see her, and want to know more. The older I get, the more I want to know the old stories. I'll never get the chance to know her on a mature level, when I could appreciate her more.
I appreciated her when I was a kid and we got to play around. She ran this big apartment center with my grandpa, and it was this huge space and we could play everywhere. We had a lot of fun. We went over there all the time. But then you get to be a teenager, and you grow apart. You're with your family, then you distance yourself, and then you get older and go back to your family. I'll never get to do the going-back part because she died too early.
Everyday Health: Did she ever quit smoking?
Danica Patrick:She did.
Everyday Health: Do you smoke?
Everyday Health: There is a genetic component to COPD. Does that worry you?
Danica Patrick:No. I'm sure we are all genetically predisposed to something at some level. But no - I live a healthy lifestyle. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I drink in moderation. And I work out, and I eat healthy, and I feel I do as much as possible to keep a healthy, good lifestyle.
Everyday Health: What advice would you give people about COPD?
Danica Patrick:Go to the Web site drive4copd.com and answer five questions. Questions like, Do you cough anything up? Stuff like that. It might take 30 seconds. And at the end, if your score is a certain amount, then it's recommended you talk to your doctor.
The other thing is, people really need to be honest with themselves. They may be embarrassed because other people assume their illness is somewhat self-inflicted, if it's not genetic. But get over the embarrassment. Be honest with yourself and take yourself more seriously. Living a long life is not just for yourself but for the people around you.
Everyday Health: Even coughing can be embarrassing.
Danica Patrick:Shoot, nobody likes to cough, sneeze, or do anything like that in public. And when you're coughing stuff up, it's another level of embarrassment. But coughing like that is not normal.
You can do something to prevent certain forms of this disease, and it doesn't need to be something extreme. You just need to change your lifestyle. Work out some. Stop smoking. Do things that are good for you. Your doctor probably has other things he would advise.
Everyday Health: And the earlier the better.
Danica Patrick:Right, because it's progressive. The earlier you catch it, the more normal the rest of your life will be.
Everyday Health: Had you heard the term "COPD" before getting involved in this awareness campaign?
Danica Patrick:No, I hadn't. This campaign had a direct link with my grandma, though, so it was a campaign that meant something to me. I'd been waiting for a while to find one that meant something to me. This was it.
Everyday Health: Do you find it a little strange that a car-related campaign promotes lung health?
Danica Patrick:No, I think the organizers have done a great job threading the message through everything that we do. With "DRIVE4COPD," the "4" stands for the fact that COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in this country, and because it kills one person every four minutes. And then "drive" means we want to move toward this, learn more about this. Other celebrities are driving across the country to get people aware. There's nothing like taking it to the people to get them to respond. Also, it's best to find this disease early to slow its progress. It's a race against time - before it's gone too far.
Video: Danica Patrick on Boyfriend Aaron Rodgers, the Dalai Lama & Hosting the ESPYs
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