What I Wish More People Knew About Hepatitis C
In 1988, I needed a blood transfusion or I would die. The blood that saved my life was contaminated with hepatitis C virus. This potentially lethal and infectious microorganism is the most common blood-borne virus in the U.S. Some scientists estimate that more than 3 million people in the U.S. have hepatitis C; others put that figure closer to 5 million.
What is certain is that hepatitis C kills more people every year than HIV does. Millions of people in the U.S. do not know that they are infected and that they have a disease that can infect others.
Hepatitis C has occupied my life. As a nurse at Stanford Medical Center, I worked with hepatitis C patients. Now my work is writing, speaking, teaching and increasing awareness about this disease. I’ve written two books about it—Hepatitis C Treatment One Step at a Time and Free from Hepatitis C.
Here's what I want you to know: Hepatitis C is easier to bear if you have hope, and there is every reason to have hope. Hepatitis C is curable, with about an 80% success rate, but you can’t cure it if you don’t try, or even worse, if don’t know you have it.
What everyone needs to know about hepatitis C
There are more Baby Boomers with hepatitis C then any other age group. If you were born between 1945 and 1965, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends one-time testing for hepatitis C. One in 30 Baby Boomers has it, so if you are one, or know a Baby Boomer, please help get the word out.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a virus that is passed via blood-to-blood if there is contact with infected blood. Injection drug use and blood transfusions prior to 1992 were common ways people acquired hepatitis C. Those in the military may have been exposed when jet guns delivered vaccines. Inhaled drugs, tattoos, and transmission from mother to baby are other potential routes of transmission.
Hepatitis C multiplies a trillion times a day in the liver, causing liver damage and a variety of symptoms. Fatigue is the most common complaint, but depression, and cognitive problems are frequently reported. Because the body’s immune system tries to destroy the virus, patients may experience muscle and joint pains, headaches, and dry mouth.
Sometimes other organs are affected and people with hepatitis C are at higher risk for other diseases and death from causes other than just from liver-related ones. At its worst, hepatitis C can cause severe scarring of the liver, a condition known as cirrhosis. Those with cirrhosis are at risk for liver cancer, end-stage liver disease, and death.
For many, the emotional burden that accompanies hepatitis C can be worse than the physical one. Hepatitis C has the power to rob people of hope. Patients wonder what this virus will do to them, their families, and their dreams. Fear of infecting others is a frequent burden, as patients obsess over whether they have done all they can to protect those with whom they come in contact. Finally, there is hepatitis C’s stigma, brought on both because of having an infectious virus, and its association with injection drug use. For some, hepatitis C’s stigma is a heavier burden than the virus is.
A Mind-Body Approach to Hepatitis C
When I was first infected with hepatitis C, there was no treatment for it. I quickly realized that my best strategy was to stay healthy. I chose a holistic approach, caring for my mind, body, and spirit. Since everything goes through the liver, this means I am careful about what I ingest, breathe, and put on my skin. This is true for everyone, since we all have livers. However, a liver with hepatitis C needs special care.
The irony of having hepatitis C is that because of it, I turned to holistic medicine. Because of hepatitis C I exercise every day. Because of hepatitis C I eat a healthy diet and maintain a normal weight. Because of hepatitis C I meditate and sleep 7 to 8 hours every night. Living with hepatitis C is like having a small voice in my head—it reminds me to eat a lot of vegetables, to abstain from alcohol, to pursue humor and to stay grateful.
My hepatitis C story is not about getting sick; it is about reclaiming my life. Holistic medicine has served me for more than 25 years, and supported me through three hepatitis C treatments. During my last treatment, holistic medicine gave me the strength to finish my most recent book, Hepatitis C Treatment One Step at a Time. If I can do it, anyone can.