Diabetes can’t slow her down

I want everyone to see diabetes through my eyes and know that it isn’t something to be afraid or ashamed of. When I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, my family had to adjust to my need for more routine, stricter meal plans, and more, and they still have to. A nurse came to my school and spoke to the class about what diabetes was and how I would need to give myself injections throughout the day, poking my finger, sitting out for a few minutes during phys ed, and more. When my classmates knew, there was no guessing about, “What are you doing? Why do you get to sit out?” They all knew the answers. That one class was my easiest year in school diabetes-wise because the kids all knew. 

I’m super thankful for such a supportive family (my mom, dad, and my brother) and for my friends when it comes to facing daily challenges. They make me feel like my diabetes can’t slow me down.

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Remember, a person is important regardless of the cause of the disease

I was born into a poor family; my parents were alcoholics. I was taken from my parents at an early age and placed in foster care. I was always quite fit: I played basketball, hockey and soccer, and sang. I grew up from age 10 in what appeared to be a normal family. For the most part it was. We grew up on a farm. We worked hard and were provided with lots of food as a result of our high [level of] activity. Back in the ‘80s we did not understand nutrition very well and were taught to eat what was made and put in front of us. I was small and underweight in grade 10, at the time I met my future wife.

Due to some troubles at home, I moved out on my own in 1989 when I was in grade 12. I had to work and study, and provide for myself. I survived on cheap food and began to gain weight as I had little time to play sports and was no longer working on the farm. In 1997, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

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Leaving the need for anonymity behind

Kylie Peacock was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was eight. To a girl who had always shied away from attention,  it now seemed everyone was hovering over her. In addition to doctor visits and meetings with nurses and dietitians, the adults in her life took extra care to look out for Kylie.

Uncomfortable with the attention, Kylie became anxious about the burden she thought she placed on others, so much so that by the time she was 16, Kylie craved anonymity. She stopped using her insulin pump, and when she began to make new friends in university, she avoided telling them about her disease.

“It’s not that I didn’t care about my health, I just didn’t want to burden anyone else with it. I didn’t want my diabetes to shape me,” Kylie explained. By not telling anyone about her diabetes, Kylie was spared the judgmental comments and questions that had followed her for years: Should you eat that? Do you have the good or the bad diabetes? Are you sure you’re okay to do that?

But keeping secrets wasn’t easy, neither was managing diabetes. “There were so many new things going on and I had to do so much on my own. I found it hard to manage my diabetes, and still keep on top of my school work and make friends,” Kylie said.

Looking for a better way to cope, Kylie began to see a psychologist. She soon learned not to care what others said about her. She’s now using her insulin pump again and is focused on living a healthy, full life. She’s also rekindled her passion to speak publicly about living with diabetes as a way to help others. She had done this when she was first diagnosed but had stopped.

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Challenging others’ perspectives

Life shouldn’t have limits. That’s especially true if you’re 17 years old and ready to ride across Ontario with your friends. 

Even three days in the hospital after his diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, Elliot Gatt was still set on making the trip with his friends. But he got the wake-up call he needed after a short practice ride. “I had a diabetic seizure, and it really sunk in that this wasn’t something I could just fix with a couple of pills,” Elliot explained.

With his family and friends there to support him, Elliot had to begin the process of understanding diabetes, and how he could best manage it. With time, he was able curb the highs and lows and get his blood sugar levels back in check. "It wasn't ever easy, and it’s still a work in progress."

In 2010, Elliot joined Diabetes Canada's Team Diabetes and ran his very first marathon in Reykjavik, Iceland. “When I told people I was training for a marathon, I think it shocked them. People have a certain perspective of what someone with diabetes looks like or what they are able to do,” shared Elliot. “It’s too bad. But, it’s nice that I’m able to show others that even with diabetes, you can be unstoppable.”

His first marathon left him feeling empowered and ready for anything! 

Since then, Elliot has run an ultra-marathon in the Grand Canyon and competed in the Subaru Series Triathlon in Banff, Alberta. In 2017, Elliot, founder of the company Good Glucos, will join Team Bike Beyond with 21 other cyclists with type 1 diabetes to ride from New York to San Francisco. Together they will stop in at diabetes camps along the way to show young people what’s possible when you’re living with diabetes.

“There’s a hard reality living with this disease and we have to make sure we are taking care of our health,” Elliot said. “The next step is to live a full life and to do what's needed to reshape what’s possible.”

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Dr. Bruce A. Perkins

Dr. Bruce A. Perkins is a clinician-researcher at Mount Sinai’s Leadership Sinai Centre for Diabetes in Toronto. He researches type 1 diabetes, including nerve damage, diabetic kidney disease and ways to help improve blood sugar control, which even include the development of the artificial pancreas. Dr. Perkins also lives with type 1 diabetes himself, having been diagnosed when he was 18.  For him, the “Strike out Stigma” campaign video relates to many of the feelings he talks with his patients about. “The message of the campaign changes from “I don’t think I can do this” to “I can do this” and that’s important because in our clinical activities every day it’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We want to give people the confidence to have the right insulin therapy, the right basal insulin, the confidence that they can estimate carbs and figure out a dose of insulin. They can definitely do this. Anyone can do this with the right team, the right tools and also with the right investment in research, so we can continue to refine how we support each and every person with diabetes moving forward.” 

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Dr. Michael Vallis

For Dr. Michael Vallis, a psychologist and associate professor at Dalhousie University, diabetes stigma is an important issue in much of his research. “If you don’t have diabetes it’s easy to adopt the view that it’s “no big deal”; something to do with sugar and you just have to stay away from sweets. But if you live with diabetes, the psychological impact of this disease can be huge. Oh, and by the way, sugar (carbs) is the fuel for the body and is necessary to sustain life,” he says. Dr. Vallis, who regularly works to train health-care providers on the importance of emotional health in treating diabetes, knows that you need to understand far more than just the physical toll of the disease. “Diabetes intrudes into almost all decisions a person makes throughout the day. Every time you eat, all of your activity and the stresses of the day all impact your diabetes. So people tend to experience diabetes as burdensome. Also, diabetes self-management is an everyday thing; no weekends, summer vacations, retirement; every. day. If this wasn’t enough, a person can do all of the things asked of them and still develop complications; unforgiving. So if one has a burdensome, constant, and unforgiving condition is it a surprise that it would affect emotional well-being? If others continue to view diabetes as minor, when the person living with diabetes experiences it as major, their distress is increased by bias and stigma. Acceptance and support from those without diabetes can go a long way in helping those living with diabetes cope.” 

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Dr. Jonathan McGavock

Dr. Jonathan McGavock is a Diabetes Canada funded researcher whose work with youth living with type 2 diabetes has given him a unique perspective on stigma and how it impacts young people living with this disease. He, along with Dr. Allison Dart, has been researching the effects of diabetes stigma on Aboriginal youth at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba.  “Stigma was identified by youth with type 2 diabetes and their parents as their primary concern at home, at school and in their community. Stigma affects their wellbeing and mental health very negatively. They have created a video to share their thoughts, asking media and the public at large to think about how they talk about youth living with type 2 diabetes. Please take a look at this video before making conclusions about youth living with diabetes.” 

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Dr. Kaberi Dasgupta

“Patients with diabetes have daily challenges and regimens that must be followed to protect their future health. On top of this, they may feel excluded or rejected. That is why addressing stigma is critical to their health and well-being,” says McGill University’s Dr. Kaberi Dasgupta, whose recent work on diabetes stigma in adults and youth living with type 1 diabetes was funded by Diabetes Canada. She is hoping to determine how widespread stigma is among youth and adults with type 1 diabetes in Canada, to study the link between stigma and blood sugar control, and to look at the ways we need to address type 1 diabetes stigma. “Feeling blamed and shamed makes caring for yourself harder and it can lead to anxiety and unhappiness. As health-care providers, family, and friends, we need to stand with people with diabetes to confront the challenges of stigma.” 

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Dr. Norbert Schmitz

For McGill University’s Dr. Norbert Schmitz, whose research is funded by Diabetes Canada, the emotional impact of diabetes and the effect that has on mental health is a critical issue. “Diabetes treatment requires active self-care in so many areas, including diet, smoking, physical activity, taking one’s medications properly, seeking treatment when necessary, and regularly monitoring one’s symptoms. Depression may impede people’s ability to best self-manage their disease, sapping their energy or motivation to keep up the very behaviours they need to protect against poor health outcomes,” he says. “Increasing evidence suggests that integrating the management of diabetes and depression improves medical and mental health outcomes. It is important to reduce the stigma associated with psychological problems and to provide the best care for people suffering from both, diabetes and psychological problems.” 

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