Comedian's hepatitis battle no laughing matter

The following is the first instalment of a two-part story of how comedian All Kyojin, 60, overcame hepatitis C through a 1-1/2-year treatment.

TOKYO - At 1.84 meters, All Kyojin's strong physique makes him an imposing figure. He touts himself as the strongest arm wrestler in Japan's entertainment industry, and can crush an apple in his hand.

However, 18 years ago, Kyojin--one half of the All Hanshin Kyojin manzai duo--was diagnosed as a hepatitis C sufferer after taking a blood test for an appendectomy.

About 2 million people in Japan carry the virus, which can lead to cirrhosis and even liver cancer.

Initially, Kyojin refused to accept his disease required careful attention.

"I didn't notice any symptoms and never thought that I might die from liver cancer," said Kyojin. "I began to think it would be all right if I left the virus untreated, so I didn't consider it seriously."

When he drank excessive amounts of alcohol, he feared the virus was doing his body harm.

Each time he saw his doctor, he was advised to start treatment.

He had several blood tests a year, but because the results stabilized, Kyojin continued to postpone his treatment.

When he went to a hospital for a regular physical checkup in October 2009, the private doctor advised him--as usual--to start treatment.

Kyojin said vaguely that he would start soon.

But immediately after Kyojin's reply, the doctor put down his gastric camera, stopped the examination and phoned another hospital to make a reservation for Kyojin's treatment.

Kyojin's wife had become infected with the virus and was receiving treatment.

He saw her agonizing over the side effects and being bedridden for days because of them. Watching her gradually changed his mind.

"I came to think I'll take up the challenge of the treatment and experience how hard it is before turning 60, while I still have the physical strength to cope," he said. "I decided only lightly."

A final lesson from his master

A detailed examination at the second hospital found the type of hepatitis Kyojin carried was difficult to cure, and that a large amount of the virus was in his body.

He was given weekly injections of pegylated interferon.

He learned that the injections and antivirus medicine Kyojin was taking had many side effects, including high fever, hair loss and depression. He was upset by what it was doing to him.

"If I lost vitality and couldn't perform good manzai, it would be impolite to the audience. I considered stopping the treatment," he said.

Kyojin told this to his doctor, who countered: "It may be good to live a short and colorful life. But doesn't the audience want to enjoy your manzai for a long time?"

Kyojin thought about his manzai master, the late Hachiro Oka, who suffered from an addiction to alcohol. The mistakes made by his master helped Kyojin attempt the treatment more seriously.

"Mr. Oka's face and mannerisms are very similar to mine," Kyojin said.

He also said, "He had an operation on his appendix and was very fond of alcohol. I felt as if I was following in my master's footsteps. But I didn't want to have the same health problems. If my disease was curable, I wanted to overcome it."

In his recently published book "Shitei" (master and disciple), Kyojin depicted his 31-year relationship with Oka.

Kyojin mentions his treatment for hepatitis C in the book, saying that his master's influence helped him pursue treatment.

In February 2010, he began treatment with an injection. Soon after this, he had chills, a fever of more than 39 C and felt pains in his joints.

"I was prepared for the treatment, but I regretted starting it because I had to deal with the side effects of the injections," he said.

But this was just the beginning.

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