No Laughing Matter

GBBOlogoThe quirky, humorous snippets and the innuendo from Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc is one of the many things that makes The Great British Bake Off so watchable. But when Perkins opened yesterday’s episode with the statement:

“So far we’ve… eaten a chocolate shard that’s made me insulin dependent”

I know, from the reactions on Twitter, that I wasn’t the only one addressing my television screen with at least a bemused “Erm… no it hasn’t” or, more likely, something rather stronger.

It’s light entertainment. I get that. She’s a successful comedienne. I get that too. I know it is not the place of a Tuesday evening reality television show about baking to educate the public about an, albeit common, chronic condition. But, unfortunately, that is exactly what it does.

People who aren’t already connected to diabetes, by living with it or caring for someone who lives with it, don’t tend to seek out accurate information about it from proper medical sources.Why should they, when it doesn’t affect them? They often believe that people with diabetes can’t eat any sugar. They often believe that only older people, or overweight people, are affected by diabetes. They believe what they see and hear in popular media. And a statement such as that opener inadvertently educates, or reinforces the belief, that diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar.

Let me state it for the record now: Type 1 Diabetes (formerly known as insulin-dependent diabetes) is an autoimmune disorder that is not caused in any way by one’s eating habits. In fact, the causes are so complex that not even dedicated research teams fully understand them all. But the bottom line is that the immune system destroys the healthy insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas so that insulin can no longer be made.

The irony is that all of us, diabetic or not and whether we have consumed an enormous chocolate cake or not, are dependent upon insulin. Our bodies need it to function. For people with type 1 diabetes, injected or infused insulin is an essential life support. Without it, we would die. Not as quickly as someone would die without oxygen or water, but rapidly and painfully nonetheless. That stark fact, which we face each day as we calculate and administer this life saving medication, makes it hard to swallow blithe jokes about becoming insulin dependent.

Diabetes is hard work. Browse through my archives to see exactly how much hard work it took to come safely through my pregnancy with a healthy child. Even without pregnancy in the mix, it’s a demanding part of every day. Every morsel of food, every moment of activity, every minute of stress and every degree change in the temperature has the capacity to affect blood sugar levels. The short term risk is severe low blood sugars, potentially leading to unconsciousness or seizures. The long term risks are to our eyes, our circulatory systems, our kidneys and our nervous systems – a seemingly endless list of potential complications of diabetes hangs over each and every one of us living with this condition.

And it’s a condition that’s full of blame. There is no other chronic condition where so much responsibility for ongoing health rests entirely with the patient; where so many day-to-day decisions about management are to be made by the patient alone. We blame ourselves enough when things don’t go to plan, and we don’t need external questions about whether we should be eating something or doing something or the suggestion that we brought this on ourselves with inappropriate dietary choices.

People with diabetes lead full, normal, rewarding and happy lives. There isn’t very much that we can’t do, and perhaps that is why the public perception of this condition remains so twisted. Rest assured that behind the scenes of a diabetic’s life there is a lot of hard work and effort involved in staying healthy. It’s not a laughing matter any more than cancer or mental health or any other illness.

So please, cut the blame and cut the jokes.

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