Stella Armstrong, a mother of two, was turning her life around and going to a drug treatment center when she found out she had hepatitis C.
Back in 1999, the rehab center offered free testing for several diseases, including hepatitis C and HIV. “Everything came back good, except for hepatitis C,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
The disease came as a surprise at first — and then it hit her. When Armstrong was around 18 years old and living in San Diego, she’d briefly tried injecting drugs (a common way hepatitis C is spread is by sharing needles). But she had buried that dark memory long ago.
“My counselor said to me, ‘How would you have contracted hepatitis C?’” she recalls. “My mind raced back to 1980 and that I’d used the needle. I’d shoved that memory so far down that I never thought about it again.”
Feeling healthy enough and fearing the side effects of the only hepatitis C drug regimen available at the time, Armstrong decided to forgo treatment for the disease. Instead, her primary care physician regularly monitored her blood work, including her liver enzymes, for 13 years.
But in September 2013, her health took a turn for the worse.
She had already been feeling achy and tired, as well as bloated — symptoms she had learned to live with. “But it got to the point where I was feeling like I had the flu every day, with mild fever and nausea,” she says.
Armstrong continued: “I had my labs done and my liver enzymes had tripled. I was devastated, nervous, and stressed out. They did the FibroScan [a noninvasive test] and told me I was at fibrosis 3 or 4 — right before cirrhosis.”
A few months later, and before her health got any worse, Armstrong decided to start taking what was then a new FDA-approved drug for hepatitis C. She took the medication for 12 weeks and was cured of the disease.
Although it would have been easier for Armstrong, who is now a 55-year-old grandmother of six, to keep both her disease and her previous drug use a secret, she decided to share her story in the hope that she could help others coping with the disease.
“It’s so stigmatized — a lot of people don’t talk about it,” says Armstrong, who lives in Las Vegas and is a member of the American Liver Foundation’s Patient Advisory Committee. “People don’t want to be judged.”
For Armstrong, it’s her past that motivates her to help others. “I’ve made a point of helping others and talking to them about what I went through,” she says. “I want people to know there’s a cure for [hepatitis C] and not to live with it for years and how much damage it does to your body. You don’t have to live like that.”
With the disease behind her, Armstrong is focusing on what’s important in her life: staying healthy and spending time with her grown children, Anthony and Lesley, and her grandkids. “It’s nice because I can look forward to that,” she says. “I don’t have this awful thing on me, waiting for it to catch up to me. I can move on and live my life like a normal person.”
May is Hepatitis Awareness Month. Read more about the disease on Yahoo Lifestyle: