Living with diabetes

by Symptom Advice on November 2, 2011

Sharon McCarthy was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was only 16 months old.

She gives a lot of credit to God for keeping her alive, because without her strong faith, she says she probably wouldn’t have her eyesight, her kidneys, her legs or her life.

One thing is certain though: She would not be alive without insulin injections — a treatment developed just two decades before she was born, said the 64-year-old retired nurse.

“I grew up with it (diabetes). In that sense, I don’t know what life without diabetes is like,” McCarthy said.

Since she was 12 years old, she has been injecting herself with insulin. Now that she’s in her mid-60s she wears a timed pump from which small doses of insulin are periodically pumped into her stomach from a thin tube. She pricks her finger about five to seven times a day, depending on whether she’s working out or not, to check her blood sugar levels. She is on a low glycemic diet that includes food like whole wheat items, milk and certain vegetables.

McCarthy knows to carry a glucose tab and some grape juice with her at all times. She knows that stress could send her sugar levels up or down and she knows that very ripe bananas, as opposed to the mildly ripe and slightly green ones, will send her sugar soaring, she said.

“Diabetes is a tricky disease,” McCarthy said. “If you’re just diagnosed with diabetes, give yourself at least nine months, better a year, to learn how you’re going to react adjusting to diet, exercise and everything else that comes along with living with diabetes.”

Every person’s body reacts a different way to the disease.

One young man said to McCarthy, “‘I love Mexican food and now I can’t eat it.’ And I said that’s not true. He said, ‘the dietitian said I can’t eat it.’ I said, ‘well ask the dietitian if she has diabetes.’”

Some doctors may not always know what’s best; and that is what she teaches to the members in her diabetes support group every third Thursday of the month with the Southern new Mexico Diabetes Outreach program. People have to stand up and be their own advocate and speak up for themselves when they think they need more medication or more test strips to test sugar levels more often. get another doctor if you have to, she said.

One of the most important things she teaches at the meetings is “Diabetes is not a death sentence,” she said. “Now, it can be if a person newly diagnosed says ‘eh, that doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’”

It’s easy for a person to spiral downhill with depression, stubbornness and carelessness. People have to have kidney transplants, they loose their sight, they loose a limb or they develop another disease like high blood pressure or heart disease.

Other complications include kidney disease, nervous system disease, dental disease, complications with pregnancy and overall illness, which could lead to coma, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder caused when the body is not using food correctly. there are two kind: Type 1 is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when the body produces no insulin from the pancreas, which helps sugar absorb into the cells for energy or growth. Anyone can have type 1 and it doesn’t matter whether the person is healthy and eats right. Type 2 is the most common and is mostly caused by the unhealthy ways a person eats and lives. Those with type 2 either don’t produce enough insulin or the cells are not responding to insulin, according to the American Diabetes Association website.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes include urinating frequently, extreme thirst and hunger, weight loss and fatigue. Type 2 includes type 1 symptoms, plus frequent infections, blurred vision, slow healing and numbness and tingling in hands and feet.

According to 2011 statistics by the CDC, diabetes is most common in those of black, Hispanic and Native American origin. More than 14 percent of Native American adults have diabetes, nearly 12 percent of Hispanic adults have diabetes and nearly 13 percent of black adults have diabetes. the disease affects nearly 26 million Americans in all, or 8.3 percent of the population. about 2 million people were diagnosed last year and about 79 million adults, aged 20 and older, have prediabetes.

Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, kidney disease and non-traumatic limb amputation. It’s is also the seventh-leading cause of death, according to 2007 statistics. the cost of treating diabetes in the U.S. reached $174 billion in 2007, because most patients’ medical expenses are twice as high than for those without the disease.

Obesity and type 2 diabetes

“I see a more and more obese population,” said Dr. Andrew Lancaster, an endocrinologist at Nzhu Endocrine and Diabetes Care in Alamogordo. “The portion sizes in the last 40 years have gone up dramatically and the activity level has been going down.”

His example comes from a conference where a color-coded map showed the growth of the population every five years. every year, the obese colors got bigger and then new colors had to be added for the more extreme numbers in certain areas of the country, Lancaster said.

At Lancaster’s clinic, he sees about 20 patients a day and has about 1,500 patients in all. because he works a lot with diabetics, he is booked clear until the end of the year and so are other endocrinologists and doctors like him who specialize in diabetes care, Lancaster said.

“Food is so easy to get these days and it’s cheap, because a lot of the cheap stuff is processed and full of sugar and fat. the focus here, and the whole ‘cure’ for diabetes, is eating right, exercising and making healthier choices,” Lancaster said.

“The less processed the better,” he said.

In fact, the best thing to do would to have a garden and a few farm animals, because that gives people a chance to exercise while chasing around the animals for dinner, Lancaster said.

Other healthy eating tips he suggests are not to be a compulsive shopper while in the grocery store. instead of buying whole bags and boxes of cookies and junk food, get a small portion or a single serving. having it in the house is always going to be a problem and telling yourself “no” often doesn’t work.

Also, during the holidays, if you know a member of the family who has diabetes, bring some healthier foods to the table. Put out some un-sweetened tea and water instead of regular sodas. It’s just like having an alcoholic around and “can an alcoholic just have one beer?” Lascaster asks. “Maybe, but you don’t want to take that risk.”

“Diabetes is not a death sentence,” he said. “It’s a wake up call to have one take over their diet.”

Diabetics have to take it one step at a time, they can’t change suddenly or stop their habits cold turkey. sometimes a person has to hit rock-bottom and have some sort of epiphany to make a change, he said.

Change isn’t easy

For Beatriz Favela’s mother, making changes to her diet was hard.

“I started noticing that my mom was doing a lot of things wrong,” Favela said. “The fact that I started learning more, I started passing on this information to her.”

Favela is the program operations director with Southern Area Health Education Center and part of the Doña Ana Diabetes Action Coalition.

Although she does not have diabetes, her mother was living with diabetes for 23 years and her father is currently living with the disease and has had it for 20 years.

After Favela’s parents were diagnosed with the disease, she started working as a social worker and then a diabetes educator.

“That was very, very difficult for us to help her because — typical Hispanic family, you know? we are very much into family gatherings and eating,” Favela said.

Her mother went into depression, because she felt like she couldn’t be part of the celebrations because of food restrictions. For a time, all she drank was orange juice, because she thought artificial things were bad, but natural things were good — this isn’t true; orange juice is loaded with sugar and it’s something doctors give to patients whose blood sugar is dangerously low, because orange juice spikes blood sugar up very quickly.

But after her mother started listening to what Favela was learning about diabetes and teaching to other people, living with diabetes became somewhat manageable.

She died a few years ago, but Favela’s father is still coping with the disease and he pricks his finger abut twice a day, Favela said.

Moderation is key

Carl Zimmerman, on the cover, has had diabetes since 2004. it wasn’t a surprise to the 75-year-old, because the disease runs in his family.

Zimmerman is a no-worry diabetic. He doesn’t have to take insulin shots and only pricks his finger occasionally. And in a nonchalant way, he says he lost about 40 pounds from dieting and excersicing.

His wife is a biologist and an excellent cook who knows what he needs and what he needs to avoid or moderate. He cooks also, he said.

“You can have a pretty broad section of food, it’s just that if they’re on the suspect list, you just moderate,” Zimmerman said.

On his suspect list are fried foods and ice cream.

“It’s easy to fall off the wagon,” Zimmerman said. “I encourage folks not to get discouraged with wrestling with diabetes.”

Everyone is different

Betty Ayer is in Sharon McCarthy’s diabetes support group and others refer to her as a “light diabetic,” because she is checked about every six months, takes medication only twice a day and she doesn’t have to check her blood sugar often, she said.

“One thing I’ve learned in Sharon’s group is that it’s a different illness with everybody,” she said. “Each person has his or her own idiosyncrasies and you just have to take that into consideration.”

She found out she had diabetes from a regular checkup, when a blood test showed she had a blood glucose level of 200. She then changed her diet and started exercising — and lost about 25 pounds in the process.

She particularly stays away from russet potatoes and prefers the smaller red ones, because they have a much lower glycemic index, the term meaning the rate at which the food’s sugar is dissolved into the blood stream and cells. Sweet potatoes are the best to eat.

“I gave up cake and ice cream — except on birthdays,” she said with a laugh.

Andi Murphy can be reached at; (575) 541-5453

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