Woman diagnosed with rare disease encourages others to ask their doctor about liver health

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. In her mid-thirties and in good health, Brandi Bartel didn't know what to think when she started experiencing strange symptoms.

"I started to have some hair loss, was feeling a little bit more tired than what would be normal for my activities, just didn't feel like myself, there was something a little bit off," Bartel said.

It took nearly two years, but Brandi was ultimately diagnosed with primary biliary colangitis, or PBC, an autoimmune disease that attacks the bile ducts of the liver.

"It's a rare condition, it affects females more than males. Typically, patients are in their middle ages, although it can be part of a spectrum," said Dr. Peter Ramsey, a physician with CoxHealth specializing in gastroenterology. "Ultimately, we don't know what causes PBC, but it is probably a combination of genetics [and] an infection of some sort that triggers those genes and the immune systems to start fighting against the bile ducts."

Brandi's diagnosis was likely genetic, since her grandmother had the disease. At that time, the disease was called primary biliary cirrhosis.

Even though PBC is rare, Bartel wants to use her experience to encourage everyone to think about their liver when they think about their overall health.

"At this stage in my life, my liver was just not on my radar," she said. "It wasn't even something that I thought to ask my doctors to check up on."

Usually, a simple blood test at the doctor's office can determine if the liver is healthy. There are also small steps you can take to prevent damage to your liver.

"Avoiding alcohol, being healthy, not gaining too much weight, being careful not to take over-the-counter medications that could affect your liver are some important things to do to be proactive," said Dr. Ramsey.

And for Brandi, a diagnosis of PBC isn't something that has to change her life.

"I yes, have a chronic disease, but that does not mean that I have to stop living a full life," she said. "I can manage this with good decisions and proper medical attention and medication, I can live a full life."

There is no cure for PBC and it is a progressive disease, but knowledge and information about the condition has come a long way in the last few years. Now, a diagnosis of PBC doesn't mean cirrhosis or eventual death. Taking medication and living a healthy lifestyle, like Brandi intends to, can result in a normal life expectancy.

For more information on liver health and PBC, visit the websites provided in the "related links" box.