When we hear that a loved one or friend has a serious illness it can evoke in us strong emotions of fear, worry, sadness and compassion. “I’m so sorry” and “How can I help?” are commonly offered sentiments in these difficult situations. Hearing the news that someone has diabetes does not often herald the same degree of concern.
Why is this? I believe that the reasons are multifactorial.
Broad Terms Contribute to Confusion
If we consider the word “cancer” people typically have an immediate reaction of alarm. However, cancer is a large umbrella representing over 100 distinct diseases depending on the organ or system affected. Prognoses for cancer are widely variable and many cancers are curable with early diagnosis and treatment.
These important distinctions reflective of cancer’s diverse landscape are often lost on the public’s perception. Thus, people may endure unnecessary anxiety, dread and anguish. Society’s increased understanding of the medical and scientific advances in cancer treatments would alleviate a lot of suffering and fear and replace it with hope and optimism. Even those who can’t be cured are often able to have significantly lengthened periods of disease-free survival and enhanced quality of life due to new treatments.
While the term diabetes is not as deceptively broad as cancer it does represent over seven distinct conditions each with its own pathophysiology. If you consider that diabetes may occur as a result of another disease or condition like cystic fibrosis, hemochromatosis or chronic pancreatitis, just to name a few, there are even more types of diabetes.
Unless you’ve personally known someone with diabetes and seen firsthand either a complication of the disease or its daily, labor-intensive management you may not grasp the seriousness of the diagnosis. Perhaps we’ve heard the word so much that we are desensitized to it. This is unfortunate since diabetes has become one of the fastest growing risks to human health throughout the world.
Since my own child was diagnosed with type one diabetes in 2013 I’ve become very attuned to how diabetes is perceived both in personal encounters and in the media. In our circle of family, friends and teachers, the reactions to my son’s diagnosis were a mix of bewilderment, sadness and nonchalance. Most people simply didn’t know what it was.
The knowledge gap with T1D may partially be attributed to its name. For clarity, I tell people that it was previously called Juvenile Diabetes. That charged term usually captures attention. Putting “juvenile” in front of any word will often do that (e.g., juvenile delinquency, juvenile detention center, etc.)
In my experience people generally assumed that my son would now need some sort of low-level lifestyle tweaks. The word sugar was always coming up. Should we get some sugar-free foods for him? Can he have cake? Wouldn’t some exercise, a “balanced diet” and a Crystal Light or two keep this thing in “control?”
Someone once told me to ditch my son’s insulin and go macrobiotic. Although disturbing, at least one of my son’s classmates understood that diabetes was serious. Lacking a filter he felt compelled to share that he had a relative who had his leg amputated. My husband who is an ICU physician had to reassure my son that these complications are very rare.
With so many different types of diabetes it’s no wonder that such a knowledge deficit exists. Take prediabetes as a perfect example.
According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2015 an astonishing 84.1 million Americans or more than 1 out of 3 adults had pre-diabetes. A person may leave an annual doctor’s visit with this news and a general recommendation to lose weight and exercise more. He may compare notes with his friends and discover that some of his buddies are in the same boat. With the tendency to feel like there is safety in numbers one might be inclined to either ignore the diagnosis or just try a few lifestyle tweaks like joining a gym or eating brown rice instead or white.
Unlike those with type 1, those with pre-diabetes don’t leave the doctor’s office with an abrupt and permanent new way of life requiring 24/7 insulin. Perhaps this is another factor that contributes to a lack of urgency to reverse pre-diabetes. Some will gamble that they can coast along with no lifestyle changes without converting to type 2 diabetes. They might be right but they need to know the real risks of this strategy.
Pre-diabetes means that something is wrong with a fundamentally important body function: glucose metabolism. Even if an individual does not ultimately receive a type 2 diagnosis he is still at risk for serious complications like retinopathy and neuropathy. So, feeling “fine” with this relatively silent condition is, indeed, a false sense of security.
Inspiration from a Type 2
Before my own child was diagnosed with type one I had a grim, skewed perception that diabetes was either coping with spirit crushing food restrictions or trying to persevere through difficult complications. Two relatives with type 2 succumbed to those complications. I just didn’t understand the other perfectly viable scenario of a healthy life filled with abundance.
One type 2 thriver who has intruigued me so much is the acclaimed English actor, Robin Ellis. In the 1970s he was the heartthrob leading man, Captain Ross Poldark, of the beloved BBC and Masterpiece Theatre series, Poldark.
A remake of it is currently thrilling millions on Masterpiece Theatre.
A huge fan of the original, I was fascinated to discover that Mr. Ellis is an inspiring type 2 diabetic. He has contributed to the diabetes community by being very transparent about his condition and his successful journey adapting to it.
An accomplished chef, Mr. Ellis’s lushly photographed and delectable diabetic-friendly cookbooks are a wonderful resource. Anyone with diabetes perusing these books may begin to feel that there is, indeed, another way to not just live with diabetes, but flourish as a result of it.
His latest, Mediterranean Cooking for Diabetics: Delicious Dishes to Control or Avoid Diabetes, is a go-to book in my cookbook collection. My type one son is a big fan of Mr. Ellis’s lower carb recipes and it makes me feel good to cook his healthy and flavorful dishes for my entire family.
So why do some people with diabetes like Robin Ellis become converts to a new way of living with diabetes? Growing up with a mother with type 1 diabetes who passed away from a heart attack due to her condition, Robin was cognizant of the dangers of diabetes as a result of this terrible loss.
However, I believe his motivation for a lifestyle change was not simply motivated by fear. Living in the French countryside with his supportive wife, Meredith, Mr. Ellis embraced the healthy culinary treasures of this region. He used his diagnosis as a springboard to explore new possibilities in food, exercise and wellbeing.
As the mighty Theodore Roosevelt used to say, “get action.” Take diabetes seriously no matter what type you have. Don’t let denial put your health at risk. You can shift from a place of worrisome vulnerability to one of hopeful optimism and fortitude if you are open to change.
There is a full life of abundance waiting for you.