The Byrd's Nest: Treatments advance, but no cure for diabetesThis month marks the second anniversary of my soon-to-be 14-year-old niece’s diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, once commonly referred to as juvenile diabetes. Her condition is not to be confused with the more prevalent and largely preventable type 2 diabetes, once known as adult onset diabetes.
By: Klark Byrd, The Dickinson Press
This month marks the second anniversary of my soon-to-be 14-year-old niece’s diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, once commonly referred to as juvenile diabetes. Her condition is not to be confused with the more prevalent and largely preventable type 2 diabetes, once known as adult onset diabetes.
For nearly two years, Meagan has responsibly tested her blood four times a day, has given herself injections of insulin three times a day, has counted carbs for every meal and has visited her endocrinologist every three to four months. That’s a fairly rigorous schedule of tests and maintenance just to stay healthy at a time in her life when her peers are downing 2 liters of Pepsi and eating spoonfuls of sugar coated in extra sugar while playing video games until their eyes go dry (or making YouTube videos in hopes of going viral).
Oh, who am I kidding? At 32 years old, I still drink too much soda, eat too much candy and play video games at every chance I get. If I were a diabetic, I’d be in poor, poor shape. And with my family history, it’s practically a miracle that I’m not diabetic.
You see, this isn’t our first go-round with this disease. It is in fact responsible for claiming the life of my father, who, as a teenager in the 1960s, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Managing his diabetes through the 1970s and 1980s proved tough, and six months after I was born in 1980, the disease claimed his vision.
Diabetes took a further toll on my father throughout the ’80s, although his life was most likely extended by his love of bodybuilding. His exercise may have provided us with extra time, but by late in the decade, he had lost the feeling in his feet and was left walking with a cane. In 1991, my bedridden father was on a routine schedule of dialysis treatments after his kidneys failed.
One week after my 11th birthday as he lay in the hospital, he bid my grandmother goodbye and passed away in the night. He was less than a month away from turning 47.
If you’ve been living under a rock and have no idea what diabetes is, let me fill you in. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetes is “the condition in which the body does not properly process food for use as energy. Most of the food we eat is turned into glucose, or sugar, for our bodies to use for energy. The pancreas, an organ that lies near the stomach, makes a hormone called insulin to help glucose get into the cells of our bodies. When you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t use its own insulin as well as it should. This causes sugars to build up in your blood. This is why many people refer to diabetes as ‘sugar.’”
That buildup of sugar wreaks havoc on the body in the same ways it affected my father — vision loss, loss of feeling in extremities, loss of kidney function, fatigue, frequent urination, frequent and unquenchable thirst and sores that are slow to heal are chief among symptoms. To counterbalance the sugar in the blood, diabetes patients inject themselves with the insulin their pancreas fails to produce.
The type of diabetes with which a patient is diagnosed plays a large part in the treatment of the disease. In type 1 diabetics, the pancreas no longer functions properly. Diet, exercise, rigorous blood testing and insulin injections are par for the course. In type 2 diabetics, the pancreas continues to function but it’s not producing enough insulin to counteract their sugar intake. This type of diabetes can be controlled with diet and exercise alone, but if it progresses far enough, an insulin pill or injection may become necessary.
Whereas my father’s diabetes was mismanaged 30 years ago — evident by his continuing failing health — the understanding of and the technology to treat diabetes has advanced in recent years. Meagan will benefit from this in ways my father never got the chance to see.
But the real question is, are we any closer to a cure? For the estimated 25.8 million Americans with diabetes, the answer is no.
The website WebMD has an excellent article on hypothetical cures such as the use of stem cells to jump-start a nonfunctioning pancreas or islet cell transplantation (the transfer of insulin-producing beta cells from a donor pancreas to the diabetic pancreas), but ask any doctor today and they’ll tell you the truth — there is no cure for diabetes, particularly for Meagan’s type 1 diabetes.
However, Meagan has thus far proven herself highly responsible in the management of her disease — the support of her parents and loving brother has undoubtedly been key to her success — and our family takes comfort in her abilities. So, for now, the search for a cure continues and our hopes will remain high.
Byrd is the copy editor for The Dickinson Press.
Follow him on Twitter: @klarkbyrd