Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes? What you need to know

By Melissa Grant

Have you ever received an unexpected and scary diagnosis? You might go to the doctor but not know what questions to ask, and leave the visit no more enlightened than you walked in. I know just what this is like, as I recently received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. So, if you have received the same diagnosis as me, here are some questions you might have—and their answers.

What is type 2 diabetes?

Your body needs a hormone called insulin, which is released by the pancreas. Insulin lets the sugar (glucose) in your blood enter your cells, thereby lowering the amount of sugar in your bloodstream. Type 2 diabetes develops when the body becomes resistant to insulin or the pancreas becomes unable to generate enough of it. Because of this, your blood has too much glucose in it, which is known as hyperglycemia.

How did I get this condition?

There are several factors that can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, including being overweight, not exercising and eating an unhealthy diet. It’s also more common in older people and those with an immediate relative with type 2 diabetes. But why it hits some people (3.4 million Canadians, in fact) and not others is still unclear. What we do know is that you can decrease your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by eating well, moving more and losing weight (if you’re overweight).

How is type 2 diabetes different from type 1? Will I get that?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own pancreas with antibodies, meaning that the damaged pancreas doesn’t generate any insulin at all. Type 1 diabetes is often called “insulin-dependent,” as people with this form of diabetes must inject insulin into their bloodstream on a regular basis. So can your type 2 diabetes turn into turn type 1? Nope. The two illnesses have different causes.

Nonetheless, both forms of diabetes carry serious health risks. Particularly common is damage to the tiny vessels in your eyes, nerves and kidneys. Untreated diabetes also raises your risk of heart attack and stroke.

What is a glucose monitor?

A blood glucose monitor is a palm-sized device that reads test strips, on which you place a drop of blood. The monitor then tells you the amount of sugar in your blood at that moment. Regular use is important—the monitor is used to track changes in your glucose levels and to tell you if you have very high or very low blood sugar at that particular moment. Both conditions need to be treated quickly. Your doctor will tell you how often to test. It’s usually a couple times a day, but can be more if your glucose levels fluctuate frequently.

What should I look for in a glucose monitor?

The first step is to check with your insurance company to see which brands or specific units it covers. Once you know that, you can compare prices. Remember to include the price of the test strips that the unit you’re looking at uses, as these often cost more than the monitor itself. Then, go a store and compare monitors. Take them out of the package if you can. Which unit has a bigger, more readable screen? How big a drop of blood does each one require? Which is more compact for carrying around?

Also look at how the monitor saves and retrieves data. Does it have a calendar to keep track of your daily results? If so, how long a period does it cover? With some monitors, the gathered data can be downloaded onto a computer. If the one you want is able to do this, check what kind of cable you’ll need to connect the monitor to the computer so you can buy the right one while you’re in the store. Also look at the support each manufacturer provides. Is there a booklet that gives you complete instructions? Is there a website or phone number where you can get help?

What can I do to help my body beat this?

The first things to do are: (1) start eating healthily and (2) make yourself aware of the amount of sugar you’re taking in by keeping track of the sugar content of everything you eat. You’ll be surprised at how much sugar is hidden in everyday foods. Talk to your doctor and chose a daily sugar intake that’s right for you.

Use your monitor! You will soon catch on to which foods and activities make your glucose numbers go up and which make them go down. There are undoubtedly a dozen reasons to carefully and regularly use your monitor—but the biggest is that you can’t judge what you’re doing right or wrong without it.

Next—you’ve heard this before, but now it’s a matter of life or death—lose weight (if you’re overweight) and exercise. You’ll be amazed at how your glucose levels dive as any excess weight comes off. Believe it or not, it is possible to kick diabetes out of your life. The best way to do that is to get down to or maintain a healthy weight, and exercise to burn up sugars before they can do any harm.

What medications are available to treat my diabetes? Will I need insulin shots?

Although some people can successfully make the lifestyle changes above and put their diabetes into remission, many others will need medication to bring their blood glucose down to a safe level. There a number of antidiabetic medications, of which metformin is the most common. It is possible that you will eventually need insulin, but there are many other antidiabetic medications you can try first. You should also check with your doctor and consider medicines that help ward off heart failure, since there’s a increased risk with diabetes.

If you’re reading this as a person with a new diagnosis, or as a friend or relative of a person who has recently been diagnosed, know that I feel for you. It’s scary. But you can take control of your type 2 diabetes and lower your risk of related complications. It’s even possible to go put your diabetes into remission. Best of luck to you.

Melissa Grant. Author, lawyer, wife, mother, and diabetes patient. Melissa researches thoroughly before she writes a word, so you can trust that you’re getting the straight story. 

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