KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Think of all the ways that being overweight or obese can hurt you, and you probably don't think about your liver. But liver specialists say there is an emerging epidemic of liver disease related to fat. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is now the most common liver disease, and it can kill. It nearly took the life of one woman from Peculiar, Missouri.
Marla Medsker says she ate whatever she liked, and the scales rose to 260 pounds. It's an all-too-common American story.
"People just need to realize how much they're damaging their health. Especially where mine was fatty tissue that caused my damage," said Medsker.
She had non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
"The liver cells fill up so much with fat that they balloon and blow up," said Dr. Richard Gilroy, a liver specialist at the University of Kansas Hospital.
Fatty liver disease can lead to cirrhosis which is scarring of the liver. It can also result in liver cancer.
"We're talking about hundreds of thousands of people who may have this disease," said Dr. Gilroy.
Medsker found out she had it when she had terrible fatigue and nausea. She was in liver failure. She spent much of last year in the hospital. Toxins filled her brain in the final stage of disease.
"I got to where I didn't know who I was or where I was," said Medsker.
A liver transplant last November saved Medsker's life. But Dr. Gilroy says the number of livers available for transplant is limited now because so many Americans have fatty livers and can't donate.
"So really the entire population must change. Everyone needs to be looking at weight loss as an opportunity," he said.
Medsker had to lose some weight in order to get a transplant. She's lost more since -- nearly 100 pounds altogether.
"I would say if you can change your diet or the way your lifestyle is, change it because it can happen to you," she said.
Change it, she says, before fat kills you.
The doctor says there is no good screening tool for the general population. The disease is often found incidentally when people are being checked for other conditions.
He adds that there are no good medications to treat it. The cornerstone of treatment is weight loss.