How Natalie Cole Confronted a Painful Diagnosis
Advocacy Her road to recovery was far from easy, eventually culminating in a kidney transplant as a result of harsh treatments. Now, the Grammy award winner is opening up about her personal battle with hepatitis C.
MP: You weren’t diagnosed with hepatitis C until 2008. How did you find out?
Natalie Cole: I was having some blood work done for a minor surgical procedure—a hernia—when my doctor saw my white blood cell count was not normal. He recommended I go see a kidney doctor, who then recommended I see a liver doctor.
MP: What went through your mind when you were told you had hepatitis?
NC: I was very surprised to learn I had hep C. I had virtually no symptoms, and had been in the recording studio when the doctor called me. It turns out that the virus had been in my system for years. I found out that this is not uncommon for people who have dealt with hard drugs, such as heroin. The virus can also be transferred, through needles, sexual activities and blood transfusions. Why it is able to stay in the body for so long is a mystery to me. Apparently, I had been carrying this virus for at least 25 years.
"There are so many individuals out there who don't even know they are walking around with this disease, let alone able to get the help they need."
MP: Has having hep C impacted your music career at all?
NC: Of course having hep C affected me. It affected my work, and my home life. Once I started taking the treatment, I was sick, tired and nauseous all the time. I lost 25 pounds in a very short period of time. There is a saying: "The cure is worse than the disease." In this case, they are absolutely right. Interferon is a tough treatment, and would bring a 250 lb grown man to his knees.
MP: Have you ever felt victim to stigma after disclosing your hep C infection to the public?
NC: I never felt the stigma of having Hep C. I looked at it as a natural consequence of my behavior back in the day. Not that I deserved it, but I certainly did not feel sorry for myself. I was a former drug addict and this was a long-term result of that activity. I am fortunate that I was able to get help after all this time. There are so many individuals out there who don't even know they are walking around with this disease, let alone able to get the help they need. Don't be ashamed—educate yourself about symptoms.
MP: What steps need to be taken to erase the stigma that is attached to hep C?
NC: I do not see a specific route to take when it comes to erasing the stigma of having hep C. No one should have to walk around with a "scarlet letter" on their chest. Often, the cause of hep C is not due to drug use, but the general opinion is that is how you get it, which is an unfair assessment and judgment.
People need to be more fully educated. And it would be great if the schools could integrate education of hep C as well. Interferon treatment has been the only thing that has worked up until now. It cured my liver up to 80 percent, but the cost was high. There is now a new treatment out that cures hep C for good. I am now hep C free.
Answers to Your Hepatitis C Questions
John P. Rice M.D., Assistant Professor, Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
“I feel great. Could I have Hepatitis C?”
Yes! Hepatitis C infection usually doesn’t cause any symptoms until life threatening complications develop, such as cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. In fact, most people infected with Hepatitis C are unaware of their infection. The only way to know for sure if you have Hepatitis C is to be tested by your doctor or local health department.
"Who should be tested?"
Anyone with risk factors for having Hepatitis C—intravenous or intranasal drug users, people who received a blood transfusion before the year 1992, people who had a tattoo placed in an unregulated setting, and anyone born between the years 1945 and 1965.
"I have Hepatitis C…"
Don't drink alcohol— it increases the chances of developing cirrhosis and liver cancer. Also, Hepatitis C is contagious, but not greatly so. It is only spread by exposure to infected blood. It cannot be spread by casual contact such as holding hands, hugging or kissing.
If you are an injection drug user, you should never share needles or injection equipment. Otherwise, you should not share toothbrushes or razors and you should cover any bleeding sores. Finally, sexual transmission is considered rare, but barrier precautions such as condoms should be used if you have multiple partners.
Why should I get treated?
Left untreated, some people with Hepatitis C will go on to develop liver failure or liver cancer. Curing the Hepatitis C prevents further liver damage and dramatically decreases the risk of dying from liver disease or needing a liver transplant.