It's called COPD - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - and it encompasses all the diseases that obstruct breathing, like emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
In healthy people, the airways of the lung are elastic; but in COPD, the lungs become obstructed and collapse and it's hard for air to move in and out.
"It's rising in an epidemic way, and in epidemic proportions, and that's what's really alarming," says Dr. James Kiley of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.
What's particularly staggering is that one person dies every 4 minutes of COPD. Right now, there are 24 million people who have the disease, but half of them don't even know it. As CBS News medical contributor Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports, it's become one woman's mission to try and change that.
Grace Ann Koppel has led a very private life as wife of renowned journalist Ted Koppel. Six years ago, she was told COPD would eventually kill her.
"It's frightening. It's like trying to suck the air you need through a straw," she says.
Incredibly, her doctor didn't recognize the symptoms as anything serious.
"The doctor told me to lose 10 pounds. He gave me no medications, he gave no tests," she said.
It was a wrong diagnosis. Finally, a simple lung capacity test gave Grace Ann the diagnosis of COPD.
But hearing her prognosis was devastating.
"I would be on oxygen 24 hours-a-day very soon," she says.
"It was worse than that," adds Ted Koppel. "They told you you would be on oxygen after two years and probably dead in five."
"Yeah, it was it certainly a moment that catches your attention," Grace Ann said.
Like 80 percent of COPD patients, Grace Ann used to be a smoker. Many people like her husband believe that the stigma attached to smoking has led a lack of awareness and research dollars for COPD.
"There is a sense of, this is one of those diseases that people - the impression is - brought upon themselves, it is the smoker's disease," says Ted Koppel.
Grace Ann has spent six years aggressively fighting her disease with various medications and exercise, and she has regained almost 70 percent of her lung capacity. The message she wants to get out is that COPD is not curable, but it is treatable.
"We're all going to die; we're all going to have the toe tag, and it's going to say something and its most probable that my toe tag, is going to say COPD," says Grace Ann. "But we've got to face these things in life and say 'What can I do to make my life most productive, most enjoyable, and most healthy' and I made that choice."
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