Ambassador, American Heart Association
My name is Annette. I’m 63, I’m African American, and I have diabetes. When I was pregnant in 1987, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Like half of all women with gestational diabetes, I went on to develop type 2 diabetes.
When I told the doctor who diagnosed me with type 2 diabetes what we have for Thanksgiving dinner, his position was, “You can’t have that.” Well, that wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t lose my traditions because of diabetes. My doctor at the time didn’t understand that.
I knew gestational diabetes and type 2 diabetes raise the risk for heart disease and stroke later in life, but that seemed far off, so I focused on my new baby and my career. For years, I used my own head to manage my diabetes.
African Americans are 56 percent more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic Caucasians. Being predisposed to diabetes is traced to a lot of things and most of them have nothing to do with DNA. The disparity comes from things like access to medical care, and what food and education is available to us. And then, of course, there’s our cultural traditions.
For me, the game-changer was finding a doctor who understood my culture. It doesn’t matter if the doctor is African American, what matters is that they understand there are certain staples in our households and traditions surrounding food in our families, and that’s how we live. It’s important.
To make a long story short, I suffered a freak accident that led me to finding out diabetes was doing damage to my eyesight. Loosely managing my diabetes all those years was catching up with me. It was then that a close friend said, “You’re going to kill yourself if you keep doing that,” and gave me the name and number for Dr. Anthony Cannon, an endocrinologist.
“The doctors don’t hear me or see me,” I said. “He won’t understand me.” But she kept pushing, and finally I called him.
On my first visit, Dr. Cannon said, “I know you’re afraid, and it’s OK to be afraid. Don’t worry about it. If you work with me, I promise you’ll get better. We can do this.”
I felt like he was my friend. I broke down and cried in his office. It was the first time anybody had ever said “we”. Hearing that mattered. I had been really, really unhappy about having to live with diabetes. I didn’t feel like I could live with it and do anything else.
Dr. Cannon understood. He said, “You absolutely cannot have a cup and a half of macaroni salad, but you can have a quarter cup. Then I want you to monitor your blood sugar every hour for up to four hours after that, and I will tell you what to do if it goes up.”
Living your best life
The thing is, we don’t have to settle for a less perfect life because we have diabetes. We can do a lot to take care of ourselves and still have the life we want to have. I have never worked as hard as I have in the past several years at maintaining my health, and I’m more “me” than ever.
I don’t want to scare anyone, but I do want people to know that diabetes is real, and so is the link to heart disease and stroke. That is something my doctor and I talk about a lot because of my family history with heart disease, and because it’s the biggest threat to my life as a person living with diabetes.
What I’ve learned is that you can live a long, great life with diabetes, especially if you find a doctor who understands the life that’s important to you.