Diabetes: a potentially debilitating and deadly disease affecting 11 million Canadians, with no known cure. What are the implications for those living with the disease?
Every three minutes, a Canadian discovers they have diabetes. Their diagnosis demands a dramatic lifestyle change, but will these alterations rob them of a full and robust life? Not necessarily. Read the stories of two Canadians who prove that thriving with diabetes is possible.
It started out as one of six-year-old Renna’s typical hockey tournament weekends—until Tammy Trembecky noticed that her daughter was not as upbeat and energetic as usual. She was also excessively thirsty and visited the washroom frequently throughout the weekend.
Concerned, Tammy took her to see their family doctor and was shocked to learn Renna had type 1 diabetes.
Upon learning that type 1 diabetes starts with a genetic predisposition sparked by an unknown trigger, the Trembeckys worried they were to blame for Renna developing a life-changing disease.
“You play it back in your mind and you think: where could we have changed things? And you realize you couldn’t,” says Tammy. “There’s no control over that.”
No slowing down
Despite the diagnosis, Renna hasn’t given up her favourite activities. On skates since the age of two, Renna continues to excel at her two favourite sports: hockey and gymnastics.
“She determined on her own that she was a goalie three years ago now and still proclaims to this day that that is her position,” explains Tammy.
Adds Renna, “[My favourite part of being a goalie is] getting shots taken on me. I would love to go to the Olympics and play on Team Canada if I’m not allowed to go to the NHL.”
Today, she plays hockey with her school program, Tier 1 winter hockey. She’s made the spring hockey team for Team Alberta for the past three seasons.
“She keeps up with [the boys], no problem,” says Tammy.
In the gymnasium, Tammy says, “She thrives on the goals that she and her coach set for her, and in her last competition of the year she placed second overall in her zone.”
A life like any other
Tammy captures Renna’s life with diabetes as “a constant monitoring, a constant carbs counting, a constant something new to learn—just a constant. But also with all of those constants, is the constant smile on our daughter’s face, which in turn, makes everything not seem quite so challenging.”
For Renna, these extra day-to-day activities haven’t affected her positive spirit. Although she finds counting carbs to be a learning experience, checking her blood sugar by pricking her finger several times daily, or attaching her pump every few days are not viewed as difficulties.
“I truly think she sees what she has to do as part of her everyday and she simply goes with it,” explains Tammy.
Now eight years old, this straight-A student is poised to begin grade four in the fall.
Along with hard work and education, Tammy credits the support of everyone involved, including family, teachers, and coaches, for helping Renna live a full life.
“Any obstacle, including diabetes, can be positively managed when surrounded by incredible people who love and support you,” says Tammy.
Differentiating between types 1 and 2
Diabetes interrupts the creation or use of insulin—which the cells use to absorb sugar—in the body, resulting in sugar overload, which can damage organs, blood vessels, and nerves.
In type 1, usually diagnosed before adulthood, the body cannot produce insulin. So far, researchers know that one risk factor is having a family member with diabetes.
For those with type 2 diabetes—90 percent of diabetics—the body either doesn’t make enough insulin, or cannot use the insulin it produces effectively. Type 2 is often developed in adulthood and, unlike type 1, can be prevented or postponed through healthy living.
Harry Flint has participated in 13 marathons, 17 half-marathons, and three 10 km runs in 16 different countries with Team Diabetes; raised over $110,000 for diabetes charities; and was awarded the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award in 2016.
A jolt of reality
But back when the Calgary resident was first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, it was a different story. Flint weighed 300 lbs, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and consumed mainly junk food at his sales management job.
In 2005, when Flint visited the hospital for chest pains, he learned the startling reality: his lifestyle had taken a big toll on his health.
“I just about blew up the glucose meter,” quips Flint.
Flint immediately recognized he had to make a choice. He could either embrace the fact that he had type 2 diabetes and learn to manage it, or die. Flint decided to make his health a priority and began making changes. He introduced healthy meals and snacks into his diet and ate in moderation.
Running for a cause
When he discovered Team Diabetes, a fundraising branch of the Canadian Diabetes Association that raises money through running events, Flint also added running to his new healthy lifestyle.
Through these events, he raised money for diabetes research and development, and funded camping trips for diabetic children.
On his runs, Flint infuses a spirit of whimsy: sometimes, during international races, he pins Canadian flag lapel pins on children, dubbing them honorary Canadians as he runs by, and always wears a Canadian flag around his waist.
“I know I’m never going to be first,” admits Flint. “So I figured I would go out there and have fun with it.”
His runs aren’t all about fun. Flint recalls running through Harlem when people were saying, “Thank you so much for what you do.”
“I ran the next mile crying my eyes out, thinking, wow, I’m doing something here,” says Flint. “It’s just stuff like that that keeps you going and wanting to keep doing it because we need to find a cure for this bloody disease. It’s just so debilitating.”
“Where are we going next?”
Flint’s passion for the cause inspired his catchphrase, “Where are we going next?” which represents his belief that participating in one event for diabetes is not enough. He runs in at least two Team Diabetes events along with three to four non-Team Diabetes races per year, training even in the frigid Calgary winters.
His determination is paying off. Flint hasn’t smoked since 2005 and has lost more than 100 lbs (45 kg) and, thanks to the support of his immediate family and his Team Diabetes family, he feels grateful.
“Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes probably saved my life,” says Flint.
Top 5 ways to support a healthy lifestyle with diabetes
Stephanie Boutette, RD, MPH, and education coordinator at the Canadian Diabetes Association, offers five ways for diabetics to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
1. Study up. Educate yourself so you can be part of managing your diabetes and reducing the risk of complications.
2. Snuff out smoking. Smoking hardens your arteries, expediting further diabetic complications.
3. Rein in stress and strengthen social support. “People with diabetes are at a risk of developing related stress, depression, and anxiety,” says Boutette.
Release stress with activities such as calling friends and getting more sleep, and find social support from friends, family, and other diabetics.
4. Watch your plate. Healthy eating is key to maintaining blood sugar and a healthy weight for diabetics.
5. Get moving. Exercise improves blood sugar levels and lowers blood pressure.