As a child, I remember hearing my parents and grandparents mention people they knew who had “sugar diabetes.” These conversations made me wonder if diabetes was like the bubonic plague; something you could catch that was a death sentence. Diabetes frightened me, and I knew I never wanted to have it. I didn’t realize how much diabetes would affect my family until I reached my mid-teens.

My Dad comes from a tight-knit family and has always had close relationships with his siblings. His oldest sister married a shoe salesman from Kentucky. Uncle Claude was a good old southern boy who enjoyed his sports and his beer. He was frequently the life of the party at family gatherings, always having a good joke or funny story to share. The two of us developed a strong bond through our love of University of Kentucky basketball and professional football.

I always knew what his Christmas gift to me each year would be – a new pair of Nike High-tops for my upcoming basketball season! When their family came to visit during the summer, I could always count on grabbing our baseball gloves and “having a catch,” shooting some hoops and having a hunting buddy to help control the gopher population.

My uncle was always happy and upbeat, so it came as a total shock to me when I found out he had been diagnosed with Type II diabetes. His diabetes was detected as I was entering High School. He wasn’t the type to be concerned about taking care of himself. In addition, relishing his beer, he smoked, ate what he pleased, and didn’t believe in exercise. Absorbing every change necessary to manage his health proved to be a fierce struggle.

His doctor placed him on a diabetic diet and prescribed medication for blood sugar control. He was instructed to quit smoking, stop drinking beer, lose weight, and start a regular exercise program. He was able to give up his cigarettes and Miller Lite completely, and switched to what he considered a healthy substitute – Diet Pepsi!

However, changing eating habits, following a consistent exercise plan and checking daily blood sugar readings were not on his agenda. His diabetes progressed quickly, requiring a below the knee amputation the year I started college. He lost his battle shortly after I graduated. He was 61. I skipped his funeral out of anger because I was upset with him for choosing to neglect his health. I didn’t realize what he had to deal with physically and emotionally until I started my healthcare career.

Dealing with Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic condition that has no known cure. Diabetes disrupts the body’s ability to produce and use insulin and contributes to heart attack, stroke, kidney disease (nephropathy), nerve problems (neuropathy), and eye problems (retinopathy) if not treated.  Primary symptoms of diabetes include frequent urination, blurred vision, increased hunger and thirst, fatigue, and in some cases weight loss. Other symptoms include dry mouth, slow healing cuts or sores, and itchy skin in the pelvic region.

As a Clinical Exercise Physiologist, I’ve worked in Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehab and Medical Exercise programs. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many participants that have battled diabetes. I’ve watched some succumb to the disease, while others have been able to manage it effectively.

Step 1

Living successfully with diabetes requires a team approach. Having a healthcare team that is supportive and proactive is the first step. It is important to have a physician who can collaborate with you and give positive encouragement. A medical practitioner specializing in internal medicine or endocrinology can provide guidance and establish a safe and efficient treatment plan.

Many hospital systems have Diabetes Education Centers specifically designed to help clients and family members learn how to handle their condition. Diabetes Education Centers offer appointments with a certified diabetes educator, who will provide instruction on a wide variety of topics such as blood sugar testing, insulin administration, and wound care and prevention.

One on one consultations with a registered dietitian or group nutrition classes is also included. The center or the hospital may also have a diabetic exercise or therapeutic training program. These programs are staffed by fitness and healthcare professionals certified and trained in exercise prescription for people with chronic conditions.  Having active mentoring from the healthcare team is essential for the individual to begin making necessary lifestyle changes. The next step in the process is just as important: having a supportive team at home.

Step 2

Family members play a central role for an individual coping with diabetes. After the initial jolt of the diagnosis passes, learning to deal with the condition successfully can be overwhelming for the patient. People sometimes experience high stress and even a sense of loss as old habits are shed for new healthier ones.

Starting a consistent routine of exercise, blood sugar testing, healthy eating, and wound care monitoring can feel like giving up a personal choice and individual control. Receiving positive feedback and encouragement from family members for making each beneficial change can foster perseverance and improve motivation. Having a spouse willing to be an exercise partner and even adjust their eating habits can provide valuable incentive.

Getting ““pats on the back”” from children and grandchildren for small successes can lead to greater improvements. In addition, for some people, the extensive changes are too much to adapt to, and depression sets in.

Diabetes Support Groups

In those cases, attending counseling with a mental health professional or a pastor can help work through emotional issues. Family support can be the turning point to assist the person to start and stay on the right track. You can join a support group or Diabetes support groups online for support from people who are dealing with the illness.

Diabetes can be a frightening diagnosis. Diabetes and depression are often closely linked. For many individuals with the condition, living an active and fulfilling life can seem daunting. Those I know who are successfully managing the disease have been able to do so by taking “baby steps.” By making one necessary change at a time, they have been able to incorporate gradual improvements.

With support and encouragement from their medical team and family, they have been able to use each “win” as a building block to prepare for the next adjustment. Even as I reflect on my uncle’s life, I wonder what must have gone through his mind when he was told he had the disease. If he were alive today, he would have a stout and understanding advocate within his family to give him guidance and reassurance.

For greater insight into interacting with diabetes patients or if you would like to chat with others affected by diabetes, I highly recommend joining the app, WeAreMore.