With her relentless energy and unbridled optimism, it’s hard to imagine diet and fitness guru Rosemary Conley being afraid of anything. But that’s how she felt when she was diagnosed with an incurable lung condition.
Having lived with severe asthma, the most serious and life-threatening form of the condition, all her life, Rosemary, now 76, was diagnosed with bronchiectasis six years ago, after suffering repeated chest infections.
“My first reaction when I was diagnosed was confusion as I had no idea what bronchiectasis was – I’d never heard of it,” admits Rosemary, who shot to fame in the 80s with her bestselling weight-loss programme, Hip & Thigh Diet.
Last year, she published her autobiography Through Thick and Thin, and despite health challenges, Rosemary, who also has arthritis, shows no signs of slowing down.
Speaking of her diagnosis, she says: “It was only later that I felt the fear – it’s a horrible feeling being diagnosed with an illness that has no cure and nobody seems to know about. There is no cure for asthma either, but people at least understand what that is and how dangerous it can be.”
Caused by damage to the lungs, the airways in people with bronchiectasis become widened and clogged with mucus which needs to be regularly expelled. The excess phlegm can become infected, resulting in nasty chest infections, and potentially dangerous flare-ups. Common symptoms include chronic coughing, throat clearing, fatigue, and regular chest infections.
Born with under-developed lungs, Rosemary’s parents were told she might not make it to the age of 10, and she spent much of her early childhood in hospital, fighting for breath.
Defying the odds to reach adulthood, she has always been scrupulous about managing her severe asthma symptoms, and last year was prescribed a life-changing biological asthma treatment.
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“I have always taken my health seriously, and I’m currently sticking to my physiotherapy sessions religiously as I recently had a partial knee replacement,” says Rosemary. “It’s the same with asthma. I’ve always taken the recommended medication exactly as it’s prescribed. My asthma is severe, but I’ve managed it well and I haven’t had a serious asthma attack for 40 years.
“After spending four miserable months in hospital as a young child I know what it feels like to struggle to breathe and I don’t take risks with bronchiectasis either,” she continues.
“If I’m travelling I still wear a mask so I don’t pick up colds or viruses which can really exacerbate the condition. I try to avoid airpollution and smoke exposure too as they can both leave me struggling to clear my throat.”
Bronchiectasis affects 200,000 people in the UK, double the number of those diagnosed with more widely known conditions, such as MS and Crohn’s disease. Yet a recent survey by Asthma + Lung UK revealed that three out of five people with bronchiectasis surveyed hadn’t previously heard of it.
Having experienced a couple of nasty bouts of pneumonia, it was Rosemary’s respiratory consultant who picked up on her history of chest infections and congestion and diagnosed her with bronchiectasis too.
For those most severely affected, the constant need for mucus clearance, which can result in up to an eggcup full of sputum a day, can cause embarrassment. “There’s almost a conspiracy of silence and I kind of get that,” says Rosemary, who since her diagnosis has discovered one of her friends also has the condition and had chosen to keep quiet about it. Rosemary believes people aren’t keen to talk about such a potentially embarrassing issue.
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Not surprisingly, given the lack of awareness, the average person has symptoms for 10 years before diagnosis.
Although there is not yet a cure, results from a recent clinical trial, funded by Asthma + Lung UK, showed that three weekly doses of a common antibiotic called azithromycin can halve the risk of chest infections for some people with bronchiectasis. Now approved as a drug regime by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, it has been a game-changer.
Many people with bronchiectasis also benefit from airway clearance exercises and can be referred to a respiratory physiotherapist to learn airway clearance techniques (ACT).
Rosemary, who lives with husband Mike in Leicestershire, says she is fortunate to only experience mild symptoms so doesn’t need medication.
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“I cough and clear my throat a lot, which can be an issue, but I know I’m lucky as bronchiectasis can have a huge impact on people’s lives, made worse by the fact it’s often invisible and so many things can trigger the build-up of mucus.”
Rosemary believes it is her commitment to exercise that keeps her so well. Although her fitness empire collapsed nine years ago, she remains as focused as ever on helping people to live happier, healthier, longer lives and creates daily wellness content and lifestyle programmes on her website (rosemaryconley.com), as well as running regular fitness classes.
She also goes to the gym twice a week, walks every day and takes ballet lessons once a week.
“At my age, it’s important to keep moving, and I think being so physical helps to keep my lungs in the best shape possible,” she says.
“I eat well, exercise, take my medication, keep up to date with my vaccinations and try to avoid toxic air and the risk of infection,” she adds. “But I’m not going to hide. Instead, I’ll keep working hard on staying as well as I can as I want to enjoy this lovely life for as long as possible.”
- Rosemary Conley is an ambassador for Asthma + Lung UK, the leading charity supporting people with a lung condition. Visit asthmaandlung.org.uk
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