Donna Cryer, J.D., understands the importance of Liver Awareness Month (October). After a decade of ulcerative colitis ravaging her liver, Cryer underwent a liver transplant when she was just 23. Now in her 19th year post-liver transplant, she is the American Liver Foundation's president and CEO. We asked her to dispel some myths about this vital organ.
The liver just deals with waste production: "It screens out toxins, yes, but from enzyme reactions for digestion to cholesterol synthesis, it's a way station for so many important functions."
Liver disease only affects alcoholics and the elderly: "There are more than 100 different types of liver disease. It affects everyone from newborns to people with autoimmune disease, like me."
Liver damage happens over time and can't be avoided: "There's a lot of things you can do to lessen liver damage. Restrict your use of medications; even common drugs like Tylenol can damage the liver. The things that keep you free from diabetes, cancer and heart disease are the things that keep your liver healthy."
The first sign of liver disease is a sharp pain: "Symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, muscle aches and pains. But those early symptoms are so vague. When you start to get itchy skin, it means toxins are really building up."
Your surroundings don't have an effect: "People who work with chemicals or who are exposed to toxic chemicals are at high risk for liver disease."
Hepatitis is blood-borne: "Hepatitis A can develop after eating contaminated food. Hepatitis B can be transmitted from mother to child in utero. Hepatitis C is blood-borne. Viral hepatitis leads to liver cancer, and that's one of the few cancers that isn't declining."
Despite the daily abuses of modern life, an undamaged liver can regenerate itself. That’s why many people don’t know they have liver damage.
“Liver disease is so silent for so long,” says Cryer. “Seventy percent of patients are unaware anything is wrong. But we need to be aware and catch it before there’s a high degree of damage. Once the liver gets overwhelmed, then there’s trouble.”