You can complain about TV drug ads. They may have saved my life

It’s easy to find fault with ads for prescription drugs, as STAT recently did. Few people get to hear about the good that can come from these ads. For some people — including me — they provide the information and motivation to take life-saving action.

In 2008, I was living a wonderful life after having retired from a long career working as an elementary school teacher, principal, and consultant. I was playing golf, reading, rescuing dogs, building miniature doll houses, and volunteering at a hospital near my hometown of Temperance, Mich. In preparation for minor foot surgery, I had some blood tests. They revealed that I had chronic hepatitis C.

As I soon learned, chronic hepatitis C is a leading cause of advanced liver disease, liver cancer, and liver failure, and is responsible for more deaths each year in the United States (15,000) than HIV.

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I can’t say for sure how I was infected with the hepatitis C virus. It most likely happened in 1978, when I got a blood transfusion during surgery for cancer. I became extremely sick following the transfusion; tests showed that I had non-A, non-B hepatitis — now known as hepatitis C. Once I recovered, I had no other symptoms and didn’t think about the issue again for almost 30 years.

When I was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C in 2008, many people had never heard of it; many still haven’t. There was a culture of secrecy about it, just like there was with HIV/AIDS. That secrecy fosters shame and misunderstanding. Both contributed to my long-term boyfriend’s decision to abruptly end our relationship after learning of my diagnosis.

Determined to defeat hepatitis C, I started a yearlong course of treatment with a drug called interferon. It caused awful side effects: thinning hair, severe weight loss, nausea, vomiting, eczema, and breathing problems. Even worse, it didn’t work to foil the virus. My doctor recommended that I stop treatment and hope for new drugs to be developed.

They eventually came along. But I didn’t know about them until I saw a TV commercial last year talking about hepatitis C. In fact, I saw these commercials many times. At first I changed the channel when they came on. They reminded me of my experience with interferon, and I vowed I would never again accept such terrible side effects for the possibility of a cure. Eventually, though, the commercials nudged me to do something.

I went back to my doctor and learned that new medicines with much higher cure rates and far fewer side effects had become available. One month after starting to take one of these new drugs, the amount of hepatitis in my blood had dropped way down. I was experiencing nowhere near the side effects of interferon — I needed to take a short nap every day and experienced some diarrhea, but was able to live a normal life. Two months later, the hepatitis C virus couldn’t be detected in my blood. My doctor told me I should consider myself cured.

I strongly believe that if I hadn’t seen TV ads about chronic hepatitis C and new drugs to treat it, I wouldn’t have done anything to protect myself against it. Those commercials raised my awareness of the disease and gave me the courage to try again to beat it. I’m sure I’m not the only person they have helped.

Deborah Clark Dushane, a retired educator, is enjoying a hepatitis-free retirement in Temperance, Mich.

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