A diagnosis of a serious or critical illness can happen to anyone, but it doesn’t have to spell the end to a full, active and happy life.
To illustrate this, we spoke with individuals living with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes to share their stories and shine a light on how they cope with the illness.
We asked our contributors for their honest experiences of living with the condition. What we found was that through the hardships diabetes can bring, they still live active and enriching lives.
Age at time of diagnosis: 57
Diabetic Type: Type 2
“It wasn’t easy at first for me to stick to my new habits, but I now feel fantastic. I wish I had made these changes earlier.”
When Anna was first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, she immediately told herself she was going to have to “buckle down and get it under control”. With a positive, action-oriented mindset, she has cultivated daily exercise routines, eats healthy meals and was even able to do what she thought impossible: quit smoking.
When in hospital for kidney stones, Anna’s blood glucose levels were tested which resulted in a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. Prior to this, she had been excessively urinating and felt constantly tired.
Anna’s experience of type 2 diabetes is that, with self-discipline, not only can you prevent the illness from undermining your life, you can even feel better than you did before. This is echoed in her advice to others: “Don’t worry, you can control this. It affects you as much as you allow it to. It wasn’t easy, at first, for me to stick to my new habits, but I now feel fantastic. I wish I had made these changes earlier.”
Age at time of diagnosis: 56
Diabetic Type: Type 2
“If you become informed about the disease and control it well, you can live as long, or longer, than you would have done without the disease”.
Gretchen’s diagnosis of type 2 diabetes drove her to a significant achievement: a published book on her experience. Titled ‘The First Year: Type 2 Diabetes’, it details her lifestyle changes, which she says made her healthier than she would have been otherwise.
Before being diagnosed Gretchen was incredibly thirsty, and a home test to check her sugar levels produced a high result. This led to a trip to her doctor and a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
She currently takes insulin and metformin for medication. To help with her blood sugar she decided to cut out carbohydrates “I don’t eat bread and pastries and other carby foods like corn and peas. I have lost weight because of this and I try to take a long walk every day.”
The online community has also been an important source of support for Gretchen: “Through diabetes forums I made lots of friends online, many of whom I’ve visited or have seen at diabetes conferences”. Importantly, she stresses that people with type 2 diabetes should not blame themselves, and should understand the role that genetics can play in the illness. She says: “If you need to blame someone, blame your great-grandparents. They can’t talk back!”
Her message to others is that although a change in lifestyle must follow a diagnosis, the change shouldn’t be seen as intimidating: “Type 2 diabetes is not the end to the life you know. If you become informed about the disease and control it well, you can live as long, or longer, than you would have done without the disease.”
Age at time of diagnosis: 11
Diabetic Type: Type 1
“I am fully aware that I can do anything that my family and friends can do. This is something I will never forget.”
A diagnosis of diabetes can occur at any age. Ellie found out she had type 1 whilst still a child. “I was 11 when I was diagnosed. My mum recognised I was having symptoms; exhaustion, excessive thirst and loss of weight. She was wise and bought me a blood sugar meter after the first visit with my GP. The meter gave a reading of ‘HI’, which resulted in a rush to A&E and an eventual diagnosis of type 1 diabetes.”
“My parents from day one have been my biggest support, and my friends and family have been great too. Importantly I did not let my diagnosis change who I am. I vowed to myself I would do something with my diagnosis and not feel sorry for myself.”
True to her word, Ellie has taken on extensive advocacy work for diabetic causes. “Choosing to raise awareness of this disease to help others has turned my struggles into something positive. I have met so many wonderful people and have done public speaking on behalf of Diabetes UK and the type 1 Diabetes charity JDRF – even twice in Parliament. If it wasn’t for having Type 1 I would not have had the opportunity to do that.”
Her activism also extends into the online world, where she runs a blog dedicated to raising awareness for the illness. “All of this has helped contribute to my understanding that, regardless of my diabetes, I can still do anything that my family and friends can do. This is something I will never forget.”
Age at time of diagnosis: 22
Diabetic Type: Type 1
“By making the right lifestyle changes since my diagnosis I have the habits in place to enjoy life as much as I want.”
Dan’s experience of diabetes has been an emotional journey: “When I first found out I had diabetes, I was absolutely terrified. Now, because I know how to manage my illness, I enjoy life more fully than before I was diagnosed.”
Finding this positive mindset wasn’t easy; Dan had to take ownership of his lifestyle, beginning with his diet. “Having full control of what goes into my diet became essential; it allows me to know exactly what I’m eating and how to adjust my insulin throughout my day for it. This does mean managing my carbohydrate and glucose intake of course, which has led me to explore more healthy, nutrient-rich meals. I’ve learnt to love cooking because of this; I find it a great way for me to relax and unwind.” He also has a strict exercise routine: weight training four times a week and five-a-side football once a week. Since his diagnosis, he’s also completed several marathons and a Tough Mudder.
Far from being a negative influence on his life, Dan’s diagnosis has actually had the opposite effect: “I feel I’ve achieved a good balance with my social, personal and professional life whilst making my diabetes work around it. I have a much better balance in life since my diagnosis and believe that I am far more mentally and physically strong because of it.”
Dan’s advice to those who have been recently diagnosed is to make sure to use the support networks that exist. His family and friends have consistently been incredibly supportive, but he also found comfort in the wider community: “The diabetes online community is a wonderful place to meet new people. Use us, talk to us and reach out. We’re only going to want to help.”
Dan has shown that diabetes does not define an individual, and that the challenge it poses can lead to positive changes: “In a way, I’m almost thankful because I like who I am with diabetes. I can’t really imagine a day without it.”
Top ten tips
Always carry glucose tables such as Dextro
Carry your glucose meter and strips at all times
Ensure friends and colleagues know you're diabetic
Avoid stress as much as possible
Personalise your insulin pump and glucose meter
Seek out support and help from other diabetics
Dedicate a cupboard in your house for all your Diabetes supplies
If in doubt, test!
Always carry ID to show you're diabetic
Eat regular meals
Diabetes is clearly a serious condition – one that means you’ll have to think very carefully about your health and lifestyle choices and make some significant changes. In the case of type 2 diabetes, healthy living will also reduce your chances of ever developing the condition.
Even so, these stories show that a diagnosis doesn’t have to spell the end of a full, happy and active life. You don’t have to let it define or control you. You could even find that it becomes the motivation you need to push yourself to even greater heights.