Diabetes: Caught Between the Miracle Cure and the Deadly Scare

It often seems that there are only really two types of media story about diabetes. The first is the “New Hope on the Horizon” or “End to Jabs Misery for Diabetics” or even “Diabetes Cured… in Mice!” story. Damn those mice. They’re always getting cured. These stories are frustrating because we’ve been hearing it, covering the same ground and getting nowhere, for most of my diabetic life – which is now over thirty years. And it’s not as simple as not believing that there will be major changes in what we know and can do about diabetes, but these stories make it sound imminent and for those of us living with it, the reality is that on a day-to-day basis it still feels impossibly far away.

The second type of diabetes story that clogs up the health pages centres on the condition as a ticking time bomb. How diabetes rates are soaring and how much of a burden we are placing on the Health Service. How we are at risk of so many health complications, whose rates are also soaring, and that diabetes remains a leading cause of premature death.

There is very little middle ground in the mainstream media. What people outside the diabetes community see of the condition is either overwhelmingly positive (we’ll all be cured next year) or overwhelmingly negative (we’ll all be dead next year). Those of us living with type 1 diabetes are, however, for the most part caught somewhere quietly in between these two extremes, striving to live full, happy and healthy lives. And these kinds of media stories do nothing but undermine our efforts to that end.

Despite what the media may have you think, we’re simply not close enough to a cure to pin hopes on it happening. Every hour that we spend with sub-optimal blood glucose levels threatens our bodies and long term health. We can’t rely on a cure or new treatment to appear to halt that damage, so it’s imperative that we live each day as if the cure is never coming, in order to remain healthy enough to see it if it does. And funnily enough, cure aside, most of us don’t want to end up statistics of the condition anyway. We want to remain complication free and achieve a normal or near-normal life expectancy even if it never arrives.

So we work hard, extremely hard, to minimise and mitigate the risks as much as possible. I’ve said it before, but it always bears repeating, that diabetes is not a simple condition for which you take a set amount of medication each day and then forget about it. Every moment of every day has the capacity to affect blood glucose levels – food, activity, stress, illness, hormones, the weather… The list goes on. And the endlessly unpredictable human body can react to the exact same scenario in two different ways on two different days. It’s a constant juggling and balancing act that we ignore at our peril.
However, the negative side of diabetes in the media is a cause of a surprising amount of judgement and misunderstanding about what we can do and achieve. And the truth is, provided we are putting that effort in to controlling it as best we can, there isn’t much we can’t do. We can work in professional and challenging jobs. We can play sports at high level. We can travel around the world on our own. And we can certainly have healthy babies (I‘m proof of that!) And most importantly, we are able to contribute, not merely be a burden. But sometimes we’re under pressure to make diabetes look like it’s easy in order to suppress the idea that we shouldn’t be doing the things we want to, or to reduce other people’s concerns about us doing them. So we get on with all the mundanity of blood glucose testing, insulin dose adjusting and carb counting quietly and try to conceal our frustrations and struggles. Success at making it look easy is sweet, but it doesn’t help people outside the diabetes world understand what it’s really like.

Here’s the bottom line: Diabetes is hard work. And it’s relentless. It’s not our fault that we have this complex autoimmune condition – we certainly didn’t bring it on ourselves. And no matter how hard we try, and how well we do, high and low blood sugars are a fact of life. Diabetes is a big deal and it’s not disappearing any time soon. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t live full, normal lives, provided we are properly supported.

This week is Diabetes UK’s Diabetes Week, focusing on raising awareness. I don’t think we only need to raise awareness of the fact that diabetes exists, but also of the actual realities of living with condition every day.

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