How I live with diabetes

With World Diabetes Day on 14 November, Yvonne Appleby shares her experience of living with type two diabetes, offering advice on how to check your risk level.

Yvonne  Appleby

Yvonne Appleby

Yvonne Appelby is a Diabetes NSW and ACT ambassador who helps to raise awareness of the medical condition across Australia.

I discovered I had type two diabetes in February 2011. I was 46 years old at the time and I'd been living with the condition, undiagnosed, for around seven harrowing years.

I was sick constantly during that period – sore throats and ear infections, flus, endless fatigue. I would get headaches all the time and I was always hungry (I put on around 20kg within four years).

I visited my doctor regularly. She’d take a blood test, tell me that my sugar was a bit high and that I should diet and exercise. It was a catch-22: I was so tired that I didn't feel I could exercise, and as a result I keep getting sicker and sicker. At one point, my doctor suggested that I was a hypochondriac, that it was all in my head. But, as I discovered, it wasn’t.

My diabetes education

There are different types of diabetes, and symptoms vary. I didn't really know anything about the disease before my diagnosis, except the negative associations like amputation. I didn't know anybody who suffered from the condition, and there was no history of it in my family.

The first thing I did was to learn everything I could about diabetes. Essentially, it’s a chronic disease that affects a person’s ability to regulate their blood glucose levels (the amount of sugar in your blood). It’s a condition that affects more than one million Australians.

Type one, which makes up 10 per cent of Australian diabetics, is an autoimmune condition where the pancreas can’t produce insulin. Type one isn’t related to lifestyle factors and includes symptoms like unexplained weight loss.

For type two, which accounts for more than 85 per cent of diabetes cases in Australia, sufferers don't respond to insulin like they should or, later on, don't produce enough. It’s usually diagnosed in adults over the age of 45 and links back to a variety of factors, including lifestyle, age, sex, and family background.

Finally, gestational diabetes affects around 14 per cent of pregnant women, usually towards the end of their second trimester. It’s caused by a variety of factors, including weight, age, and genetics.

Make your #onechange

Do you know what your type two diabetes risk level is? Take the AUSDRISK quiz to find out.

Misconceptions

In many ways, misconception is the reason my diabetes was detected so late. My doctors would always ask the same two questions: “Are you always thirsty?” And, “Are you always running to the toilet to wee?” Along with things like increased hunger, lethargy, itchy skin, blurred vision and cuts that heal slowly – these are the most common symptoms of type two diabetes. Because I wasn’t experiencing them, my doctor would always give the same response: “Oh well. It’s not diabetes, then.”

Eventually, I insisted on a blood test that confirmed the diagnosis.

Another major misconception is that developing type two diabetes is the fault of the sufferer. People assume that if you're overweight, you've brought it on yourself.

While weight is a risk-indicator, it isn’t the only instigating factor. There are a range of other risk elements that simply can’t be changed, including gender (men are more at risk), family medical history, and ethnicity. Really, you’ll never know how at-risk you are unless you find out for yourself. This online Australian type two diabetes risk assessment (AUSDRISK) quiz will give you a good idea of where you stand.

Recovery

Following my diagnosis, my life changed for the better. I started taking Diabex, which I'm still on, and after three days I almost felt like my pre-symptom self. The medication was a revelation for me. I'd been sick for so many years and all of a sudden, I was motivated to eat better. My energy came back, too – seven months after my diagnosis, I was attending dance classes – I even lost those 20 kilos. I was myself again.

Living with diabetes is no picnic, of course. As well as dealing with all of the day-to-day physical and emotional challenges of a chronic illness, there’s also the added worry in the back of your mind that somewhere down the track, complications might arise. Type two diabetes is a progressive illness and there’s a host of related complications. A lot is out of our control.

The next step…

You can't manage diabetes with medicine alone.

The next most important thing is healthy eating. There’s actually no such thing as a ‘diabetic diet’ (another misconception) – healthy eating for people with diabetes is, for the most part, the same as anyone else: plenty of vegetables, legumes, and lean protein; plus reduced salt, sugars, and saturated fats.

Blood glucose management is another important consideration. Reducing your meal portions will help with this (and help you lose weight). It’s also extremely important to eat regularly. I find it hard to wake up in the morning if my blood glucose levels get too low during the night, so I always make sure I have something to eat before I go to bed. During the day, I always carry chocolate, biscuits, and water with me.

It’s also important to get enough sleep – I find that fatigue tends to raise my blood glucose levels.

Exercise is also a crucial factor. Apart from improving your health, staying active helps manage your blood glucose levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure. It can also slow the development of diabetes complications.

Lastly, it’s important to educate yourself as much as possible about diabetes. For me, the fear of not knowing about the condition was one of the things that weighed on me when I was diagnosed. Groups like Diabetes NSW and ACT and Diabetes Australia have a wealth of handy resources, including lots of wonderful recipes. Thankfully, you’re not alone.

Yvonne  Appleby

Yvonne Appelby is a Diabetes NSW and ACT ambassador who helps to raise awareness of the medical condition across Australia.

Disclaimer:
The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional, tax or other advice. It does not take into account any individual’s personal situation or needs. You should consider obtaining professional advice from a financial adviser and/or tax specialist, or medical or health practitioner, in relation to your own circumstances and before acting on this information.