Shawne Jabonero Lopes
I am a first generation Filipina American living with hepatitis B.
My father, mother, younger brother, and I all tested positive for the virus in 1988 after my brother came down with an episode of jaundice as a toddler. Later, we discovered my father’s siblings also had the virus, which they also contracted through birth. We weren’t told much after that except that we were chronic “carriers.” I don’t recall ever being told that my condition was serious or to monitor my liver function regularly. To me, being a carrier of the virus meant that I simply harbored some weird, benign trait that couldn't harm me.
In 2004, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. We were told he had a few months to live, with few options for treatment. He passed away the following year, surrounded by his children, our mother, and his siblings. My father was 53 years old.
After losing our Dad, we didn't immediately make the connection between the hepatitis B virus and his cancer. We didn't realize that we also were at risk for liver cancer. Nor were we under the proper care of a liver specialist the way all hepatitis patients should be. However, Dad’s death reminded how short life can be, so we made it a point to end our family cycle of unhealthy habits and to live healthier lives. I decided to study alternative and Chinese medicine, and my brother, AJ, became an Ironman triathlete.
It wasn’t until a couple of years after our Dad passed that my doctor explained the seriousness of hepatitis B. He emphasized that I needed to have semi-annual check-ups with a liver doctor, and I made sure to communicate this to my mother and brother. Unfortunately, I was the only one who followed the doctor’s recommendation.
In 2014, just a few months after completing a full Ironman triathlon, AJ was diagnosed with end-stage liver cancer. We lost him three months later. My brother was a vibrant, energetic 30-year-old husband and father of two young children and a baby on the way. So many people loved him.
I’ve made it my life’s work to help spread awareness around hepatitis B and the impact it has within the Asian community. Many are unaware that they are at risk and never get screened. Some know they have hep B and avoid discussing it with their friends, families or doctors out of fear or shame. This needs to change.
Hepatitis B isn’t something we should be ashamed to talk about. Knowing our status and regularly monitoring our liver can ensure that Hepatitis B doesn’t have to end with cancer.