'I didn't have any warning signs': Edmonton woman surprised by liver disease diagnosis

Alcohol consumption and obesity are commonly understood causes of liver disease. But, as Edmontonian Heather Watson found out, so is unhealthy eating.

Thought she was experiencing a gallbladder attack

Heather Watson in recovery post transplant on May 22, 2018. The Edmonton woman is raising awareness of Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH). (Submitted by Heather Watson)

Alcohol consumption and obesity are commonly understood causes of liver disease. But, as Edmontonian Heather Watson found out, so is unhealthy eating.

When she ended up in the hospital three years ago, she thought she was experiencing a gallbladder attack, Watson told CBC's Radio Active on Monday.

"I was approaching my 40th birthday and I kept saying to my husband, 'I'm tired, I have arthritis, I think I'm dying, is this what 40 feels like?' said Watson. "And we would laugh and joke.

"But really, yeah, I was dying. It was my liver."

Watson was initially told that she had nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Upon further testing and a biopsy, Watson was diagnosed with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a condition where fatty deposits inside the liver become inflamed, causing the organ to scar and enlarge.

"I didn't have any warning signs," she said.  

By the time she was diagnosed, the condition was at the point of no return. She would need a transplant to survive.

NAFLD and NASH are fairly common in North America. According to the Canadian Liver Foundation, it's estimated that 20 per cent of the Canadian population has NAFLD and four per cent has NASH. 

Poor eating habits

NASH is often caused by poor eating habits, said Diana Mager, an associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Alberta.

"We're literally eating our livers to death," said Mager. "And particularly in relationship to high intakes of fast foods and simple sugars and it's the way the North American diet has changed over the years. And that's why we're starting to see more incidences of NASH being diagnosed."

Watson admits that her diet before the diagnosis was "horrible," saying that she is now a reformed Coca-Cola drinker.

"I probably cracked open eight cans of Coke a day. I don't drink coffee so it was my coffee in the morning. It was my pick-up after work. It was my 'I need to go to bed' or 'I'm having something salty' and I wanted something carbonated. It was just a lie I told myself," said Watson.

Heather Watson, after her liver transplant. (Submitted by Heather Watson)

In the two years before she got a transplant, Watson experienced chronic nosebleeds, extreme fatigue, itching, jaundice and bruising all over her body due to her thin blood. Her condition deteriorated to the point where she was bedridden at the hospital, unable to eat and given 24 to 48 hours to live. 

Watson's father was at Dairy Queen with her two daughters, explaining to them that Watson would not be coming home, when the transplant co-ordinator called to say they had a liver for her.

"It was a pretty emotional day," she said.

Watson will be participating in the Stroll for Liver on June 8 at Emily Murphy Park, an event to raise awareness about the disorder. 

There is evidence to show that walking and other physical activity could lower the risk of the disorder, along with eating a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, said Mager.

She urges people to pay attention to signals from their bodies, such as overall fatigue and weight gain in the abdomen.

"If you do have the early stages of the disease ... there is hope by eating healthy and losing a little bit of weight," said Mager. "There is evidence that it can reverse itself. But the trick to this is getting it in the earlier stages."


Thandiwe Konguavi


Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist, born in Zimbabwe. She is a reporter/editor at CBC Edmonton. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca. Follow her on Twitter @cbcthandiwe.

With files from CBC Edmonton’s Sheena Rossiter


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