Hepatitis C is killing more Americans than HIV, according to a just-released study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the millions infected is singer Natalie Cole, 61.
The multi-Grammy winning star recently opened up about managing her condition and her life, as well as how she managed the guilt of knowing her past most likely contributed to her developing the disease.
Cole lost her iconic father, Nat King Cole, when she was just 15. Following a string of incidents that included an arrest for drug possession in 1975; Cole entered rehab in 1983, after her young son Robert nearly drowned in the family pool while she was on a drug binge. While most aren’t able to bounce back from such a dangerous lifestyle, Cole was able to kick her addiction and return to the thing she did best: Music.
But in 2008, a diagnosis of the liver disease hepatitis C brought them home again.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that damages the liver and other organs. It may lead to a liver transplant or even death. In fact, Cole got a transplant in 2009, but not for a new liver. Because of chronic hepatitis C, both her kidneys had begun failing, and she received a new kidney.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have learned so much from my past experiences,” she says. “So I knew there was a lesson to learn from this too.”
Too many patients suffer with chronic hepatitis C in silence, Cole says. And many more unknowingly live with the liver disease because they’re afraid of being tested and facing a lifetime with chronic hepatitis C.
“I want people to know you can live with hepatitis,” she says. “And there are remarkable treatments available to help you do just that.”
Cole also had this to say about her hepatitis C diagnosis…
Were you having any hepatitis C symptoms before your diagnosis?
NC: I had virtually no symptoms. There was no warning or any signs – which really made the diagnosis a shock.
If you weren’t having hepatitis C symptoms, what led to the diagnosis?
NC: I was in the studio recording “Still Unforgettable” in 2008, and had a hernia that needed to be [treated with surgery]. As is the case with most surgical procedures – even minor ones – my doctor ordered routine blood work beforehand. The results came back and the doctor said my blood count wasn’t great and that I needed to see a kidney specialist.
Were you anxious?
NC: At that point, I wasn’t really worried. Then when the doctor said ‘You might have hepatitis C’, I said ‘What?’ I was completely and totally shocked.
What went through your mind when you heard you had chronic hepatitis C?
NC: It’s scary. Your liver is so vital to your health and the thought that I had [hepatitis C] was unnerving and terrifying. I didn’t see it coming, so I was really quite upset.
Did the doctor offer possible causes for contracting the liver disease?
NC: I’ve been very open about my heroin use of over 25 years ago. The sharing of needles and other paraphernalia involved with drug use is the most common way to get this disease. It wasn’t a stretch to connect those dots. That’s why when [the doctor] told me I had hepatitis, I thought ‘Oh my, don’t tell me that this [hepatitis C virus] was able to live in my body for 25 years and now my past is coming back down on me.’
Did you feel guilt about your drug abuse and consequent diagnosis?
NC: I’m usually the type to say, “I’m just going to fight and live in the present.” I can’t be bothered beating myself up with guilt. Once I got sober, I learned guilt is just too stressful. I take full responsibility for anything I’ve done in my life and the consequences – so there’s no room for guilt. But I got very angry. Then I started worrying. I worried how my diagnosis would affect my life and career. What would treatment involve? I was so angry at myself, but I realized there’s no point on dwelling on the should-haves and getting stuck on anger or worry. So I refocused on “What are we going to do to get me healthy?”
What causes hepatitis C infection?
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus. It is spread by contact with an infected person’s blood. You can get hepatitis C if:
• You share needles and other equipment used to inject illegal drugs. This is the most common way to get hepatitis C in the United States.
• You had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992. As of 1992 in the United States, all donated blood and organs are screened for hepatitis C.
• You get a shot with a needle that has infected blood on it. This happens in some developing countries where they use needles more than once when giving shots.
• You get a tattoo or a piercing with a needle that has infected blood on it. This can happen if equipment isn’t cleaned properly after it is used.
• In rare cases, a mother with hepatitis C spreads the virus to her baby at birth, or a health care worker is accidentally exposed to blood infected with hepatitis C.
What are some typical Hepatitis C symptoms?
Most people have no symptoms when they are first infected with the hepatitis C virus. If you do develop symptoms, they may include:
• Feeling very tired.
• Joint pain.
• Belly pain.
• Itchy skin.
• Sore muscles.
• Dark urine.
• Yellowish eyes and skin (jaundice). Jaundice usually appears only after other symptoms have started to go away.
Most people go on to develop chronic hepatitis C but still do not have symptoms. This makes it common for people to have hepatitis C for 15 years or longer before it is diagnosed.
Many people find out by accident that they have the virus. They find out when their blood is tested before a blood donation or as part of a routine checkup. Often people with hepatitis C have high levels of liver enzymes in their blood. If your doctor thinks you may have hepatitis C, he or she will talk to you about having a blood test.
need a liver biopsy to see if the virus has caused scarring in your liver. During a liver biopsy, a doctor will insert a needle between your ribs to collect a small sample of liver tissue to look at under a microscope. See a picture of the placement of the needle for a liver biopsy.
Some people prefer to find out on their own if they have been exposed to hepatitis C. You can buy a home test called a Home Access Hepatitis C Check kit at most drugstores. If the test shows that you have been exposed to the virus in the past, be sure to talk to your doctor to find out if you have the virus now.
How is it treated?
You and your doctor need to decide if you should take antiviral medicine to treat hepatitis C. It may not be right for everyone. If your liver damage is mild, you may not need medicine.
If you do need medicine, how well these medicines work depends on how damaged your liver is, how much virus you have in your liver, and what type of hepatitis C you have.
Taking care of yourself is an important part of the treatment for hepatitis C. Some people with hepatitis C do not notice a change in the way they feel. Others feel tired, sick, or depressed. You may feel better if you exercise and eat healthy foods. To help prevent further liver damage, avoid alcohol and illegal drugs and certain medicines that can be hard on your liver.
Fast forward to 2013, and the 10 time Grammy Award winner has released a string of hit jazz albums, including 1991’s multi-platinum Unforgettable with Love. And despite a bout with kidney disease—a result of a 2008 diagnosis of Hepatitis C—she still actively performs.