We Shouldn't Sugarcoat The Truth About Diabetes

08/04/2016 7:38 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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No one believes me that I'm dying. It is difficult to convince people you are dying of an incurable disease when you look as healthy and strong (and so very young, of course) as I do. My apple-shaped body means that I'd have to be nearly my birth weight to lose my curves, and my Nars blush in "Orgasm" means that I permanently look like I might have just had one.

But I am definitely, and literally, dying on the inside. I have diabetes, something that many people dismiss as a lifestyle disease. This is perpetuated by all media coverage of diabetes, which insists on showing the tummies and asses of morbidly obese people to make the point that if you are a diabetic, IT IS YOUR FAULT. The constant implication is that you have poisoned your body with food, cigarettes and alcohol, and never exercise, and now only have yourself to blame.

Of course, some lifestyle factors do increase the chances of the disease and affect its management -- but that applies to most medical conditions and illnesses. What many people don't realise is that age and genetics play a massive role in diabetes, and that is not reported enough in the media. Which means that a lot of people who are in a healthy weight-range believe they are immune to diabetes, which they absolutely are not. The result is that many Australians go undiagnosed for years, while diabetes imperceptibly destroys their organs.

Every case of diabetes is different. You may hear wonderful stories about people who have reversed their diagnosis by massive weight loss. That is brilliant for them, and obviously their weight was a significant component in their disease. But that is certainly not always the case.

In my situation, with a 100 percent history of diabetes on both of my parents' sides, the diagnosis was inevitable. I grew up with the fear of diabetes, and everyone in my immediate family is a doctor (two of them are diabetes specialists), so I have always understood the importance of diet and exercise; but still, I could not escape the family history. A lot of people who are not medical professionals won't accept that. But that's okay. I refuse to be made to feel ashamed of my disease, no matter how much society stigmatises it as a result of poor self-control amongst the uneducated, or those from a low socio-economic background.

The media's approach to diabetes is definitely one of "if you live well and eat well you won't get this disease". As I've said above, this is misleading, and makes people erroneously feel 'safe'. But also, I think it's the wrong tactic. In the same way that the anti-cancer ads against smoking focus on the wonderful things people stand to lose, such as their ability to play with their kids or speak, a similar approach should be taken with diabetes.

For example, this is how diabetes affects me on a daily basis; every day I wake up grateful for my vision. As I approach 40, my vision is slowly deteriorating like most people I know, necessitating the use of my glasses more frequently. But my fear is compounded by the diabetes, because it is highly likely to affect my vision in the future (it is the leading cause of blindness in adults). It is, quite frankly, terrifying to think that one day, when I am still relatively young, I won't be able to see.

Contrary to popular belief, you do often feel sick from being a diabetic, even though the long-term effects may not have yet manifested. Having high blood glucose levels makes you feel nauseous and exhausted, meaning that the times when most other people are indulging, like when out to dinner for a birthday celebration or at Christmas, you cannot do the same. If you do, you will most likely need to leave, when all you want to do is stay (and keep talking about yourself, although that probably only applies to me).

Diabetics shouldn't drink alcohol, because the element of alcohol itself actually lowers your blood sugar level, no matter how much sugar is in the tonic water you mix your spirits with, or wine you drink. Too low a blood sugar level is very dangerous. I've also learnt the hard way that alcohol affects you very differently when you're diabetic, and counting your drinks or alternating with water will not always prevent an unexpected spike in your blood alcohol level. This means that you always need to be with someone who knows you are a diabetic, and you cannot safely drink in moderation and drive. Another side effect is that, in typical Australian fashion, you're seen as a kill-joy if you limit your drinks when on a big night out with friends -- and that sucks when you have a reputation to maintain.

Driving as a diabetic is also potentially complicated by something called peripheral neuropathy, which simply put, damages the nerves in your hands and feet. So diabetics with this symptom cannot safely drive cars, as they may not be able to feel their feet enough to apply the brakes when needed.

So, apart from the much-advertised possibility of injecting insulin three times a day, needing dialysis or a kidney transplant, and the increased risk of a heart attack or stroke, there are some very real daily issues to contend with. Because, without a doubt, diabetes is slowly, but surely, killing us on the inside.

I hope in time the media plays a more constructive role in the diabetes crisis, and I also hope that's scared you enough to book an appointment with your GP.

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