Do you know why Apple started making red iPhones, or why many athletes and other celebrities incorporate pink into their wardrobes in October? My guess is that you could correctly identify that Apple made red products to support the elimination of HIV/AIDS, and that the goal behind wearing pink is to bring awareness to breast cancer.
Do you know what it means when someone has an emerald green ribbon pinned to her shirt? I’d be willing to bet my remaining Caf money that most of you don’t.
As we saw from the Active Minds event “Stomp Out the Stigma” earlier this semester, a lot of attention has been given to overcoming the stigma associated with mental illness. A common focus of this initiative is drawing attention to the mindset that too many of us have, in which we create a distinction between mental and medical illnesses and often end up ignoring the biological roots of mental illness. This artificial distinction often causes us to belittle the experiences of those who suffer so seriously from these illnesses. Of course this is an extremely important issue, and one I encourage all to consider more deeply. But, what if I were to tell you that stigmatization exists not only in the realm of mental illnesses, but also in regards to medical diseases?
An emerald green ribbon pinned to someone’s shirt means that he or she wants to spread awareness about liver cancer. So, why is it that so few of you knew that? Liver diseases and cancer are incredibly stigmatized within the medical world because when people think of liver issues, they automatically jump to alcohol abuse and blame the sufferer for his or her disease. (For the record: drug addiction, including alcohol addiction, is not the fault of the abuser. It, too, is a disease—this time, though, of the brain.) Since liver cancer is so frequently presumed to be the fault of the person suffering from it, it has lost a lot of attention that it really deserves.
To clear up any misconceptions, let’s review some physiology and try to think more broadly about the variety of causes of liver cancer. Fun fact: the liver is the largest internal organ in the body. Its functions include storing nutrients, producing integral clotting factors, removing toxic wastes from the body, and secreting bile to support nutrient absorption. With all those functions, there are a variety of things that can go wrong inside one’s liver which could result in liver disease or cancer. Some of these issues include: chronic infection with hepatitis B or C, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, long-term exposure to arsenic or aflatoxin (produced by a fungus which can contaminate some foods), alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, hemochromatosis, and, finally, alcohol. Of course alcohol is often implicated in the development of liver disease or cancer, but it’s important to both remember the variety of alternative causes of liver issues and to shift the common mentality from one of blame to one of understanding and open-mindedness.