Hepatitis C doesn't only affect your body. It can be tough on your emotional health, too. You might worry about your future or how others think of you when they learn you have the condition.
But your disease doesn’t need to define you. You are more than your hep C. Thanks to new treatments, the outlook for people with the condition is far better than it used to be. Most people can now be cured.
To get the most out of life, take the medicines your doctor prescribes and get the emotional support you need to feel your best.
Fight the Stigma
Many people fear or misunderstand hep C because of the way it's spread.
"I think if you were to ask people, 'What is your first association with hepatitis C,' it would be injected drug use," says Jeffrey Weiss, PhD, director of the Hepatitis C Clinical and Research Program at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.
Though shared drug needles are one of the main ways the disease spreads, many people with hep C got it in other ways. Shelley Rossell, 43, was infected when her mother got a blood transfusion while she was pregnant with her. She says many of the people she's told thought she must have done drugs or gotten tattoos. They also misunderstood how the disease spreads. "People assume they can get it by associating with you," she says.
Some with the disease wind up blaming themselves. "Some people who contracted it through drug use feel like hepatitis C is their punishment," says Donna Evon, PhD, director of psychosocial research in the University of North Carolina Liver Center.
But that kind of stigma may be slowly fading. A major health campaign from the CDC has raised public awareness of hep C. "There are millions of people in the U.S. with this disease," Evon says. "I think knowing how common it is may help to reduce some of the stigma."
You can spread the word, too. First, learn as much as you can about your condition. "Read about what it is, how it's transmitted, what the risk factors are, and what you can do to avoid spreading it," Evon suggests. Then, share what you've learned with the people around you.
Take Care of Your Emotions
It’s natural to worry or feel sad when you have a long-term condition like hep C. And you might feel like other people can’t give you the emotional support you need. "Not everybody has sympathy for somebody with hepatitis C because they think you did something wrong," Rossell says.
The best way to connect with others who understand? Join a hep C support group, where you'll be with people who know what you're going through. "I had never met other hepatitis C patients before. When I first met them and we were able to talk about things we'd lived through, it was cathartic," Rossell says.
Talking openly about his condition with friends, family, and members of his Narcotics Anonymous support group has helped William Yarbrough, 64, deal with hep C. "I realized that as long as I don't have any secrets, I'm able to get through anything," he says. "Just talking about it helps me a lot."
You can also find emotional support from one-on-one sessions with a psychologist or counselor. Ideally, find someone who has experience treating people with the condition.
You Are More Than Your Disease
How can you prevent hep C from defining you? "The answer is really simple. Go get treatment," Weiss says. Many new drugs have cure rates of over 90%. "Not only does it not have to define you, but it no longer needs to be a medical condition you're living with."
Thanks to these new meds, Rossell was cured of the disease. "It feels great. I don't have to worry," she says. "I'm not looking forward to a life of liver cancer and cirrhosis. I'm just looking forward to life."
To find a hepatitis C support group in your area, visit the American Liver Foundation's website -- hepc.liverfoundation.org or hcvadvocate.org.