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Loni Anderson’s COPD Tragedy Inspired a Lifetime of Tireless Advocacy

Actress Loni Anderson was caregiver to both of her parents who suffered from COPD, and now she is spreading the word to try and stop this preventable disease.

When actress Loni Anderson became a caregiver to both of her parents suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), she says she was surprised to learn they didn’t want to quit smoking.

“I would have thought they would have thrown those cigarettes away immediately because you don’t want to have those coughing fits,” she says. “And my mom would say, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ and my dad said, ‘I feel like I’m drowning.’ And I would think to myself, ‘And yet, you want another cigarette.’ And that was really shocking to me.”

But, as she points out, she has never been a smoker, so it’s a little harder for her to fully relate to how addicting cigarette smoking can be. She points out that some have suggested quitting smoking can be as difficult as quitting a drug like heroin. “It’s hard for me to relate to,” she says. “I just saw how they were suffering.”

Spreading the message

Anderson, best known for her role as Jennifer Marlowe in the CBS comedy WKRP in Cincinnati, which aired from 1978 to 1982, has been an outspoken advocate for COPD awareness since before many people even knew what COPD was, back when it was still just called emphysema.

COPD is caused by long-term exposure to smoke, most often through cigarette smoke, and causes obstruction to the lungs making it difficult to breathe. People with COPD are also at greater risk for developing heart disease, lung cancer, and other diseases. Because both of her parents died of the disease, Anderson is passionate about spreading awareness of the danger of COPD, and educating others, especially young people, about the risks.

A personal connection

Anderson remembers the specific moment she knew she wanted to do more to stop the spread of this devastating disease. “My son was probably 10,” she says, “And I’m thinking that’s the age where you’re looking at TV or movies and you’re kind of wanting to emulate your hero.”

Her son watched something on TV and was apparently very taken with a character who smoked. “And he put on some glasses, put a little costume on, this hat and everything, and he came in and he had like a pencil in his mouth and I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’”

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When Anderson and her sister were growing up, her parents, just like everyone, smoked constantly. “It was a lifestyle,” she says, “They smoked all the time.” In the office, at cocktail parties, first thing in the morning, Anderson says there was never really a time her parents were not smoking. She and her sister called it the “purple haze.” From first-hand experience she saw what this lifestyle had done to her parents, tragically shortening their lives by decades. So, when she saw her young son pretending to smoke to emulate some character, she knew she had to act.

“And I made him part of my fight,” she says, reminding him that he never got to know his own grandma and grandpa since they died young, before he was born. “I said, ‘Will you help me to make sure that other kids get to have their moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas?’”

It’s never too late

Anderson has traveled all over the country spreading the word about how to stop this illness, going everywhere from care facilities to high schools. “We went to a lot of senior living facilities and visited with people who were completely disabled,” she says. “It takes all your breath to shower.” She says she would think that seeing a grandparent in this condition would make a person want to think twice and quit smoking, but it’s not as simple as that.

She points out that even if you do quit — and it’s never too late to quit — there’s still no way to totally reverse the damage already done to the lungs. She says she and her group visited high schools but even then, it’s almost not quite early enough. “You have to start talking to junior high kids,” she says.

Anderson thinks about all the time she might have had with her parents, who died in their early 50s and 60s, if it hadn’t been for smoking and COPD. They would have gotten to be a part of her children’s lives and watch them grow up, perhaps living for another 30 or 40 years. Sadly, it isn’t a possibility for her. But, she says, she can do what she can to make sure other families don’t suffer the same tragedy.

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