Island woman shares her story living with type I diabetes

Laura Shilliday

MANITOULIN – This month celebrates a Canadian discovery that has saved the lives of many thousands of Canadians. It was 100 years ago this past Sunday that University of Toronto researchers Dr. Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin and removed the death sentence that was diabetes. November is Diabetes Awareness Month and The Expositor caught up with Manitoulin’s Laura Shilliday to chat about what her life is like after being diagnosed with type I diabetes.

“This is a month to reflect on what is really a hidden epidemic in Canada, globally and especially in Indigenous communities,” said Ms. Shilliday. “We are seeing such a rise in the number of type II, but we are also seeing a rise that isn’t yet understood in the number of people being diagnosed with type I.”

Type I diabetes used to be referred to as childhood or juvenile diabetes, but that appellation is something of a misnomer, explains Ms. Shilliday. She herself was diagnosed with type I diabetes as an adult.

The number of people with diabetes is rising, both in Canada and around the world, she noted. “Here in Canada, over three million people have diabetes: that’s just over nine percent of our total population. Unfortunately, that number is expected to rise. Diabetes Canada estimates that by 2025, five million people or 12 percent of Canada’s population will have diabetes. Around the world, the numbers are just as bad. The World Health Organization estimates that the prevalence of diabetes in people older than 18 years of age rose from 4.7 percent in 1980 to 8.5 percent in 2014.”

Diabetes is usually something of an invisible illness, but its impact can be devastating if left untreated. Amputations, kidney failure and death can result from letting blood sugar (glucose) levels range high over a long period of time.

“The first thing I noticed was that I was incredibly thirsty,” said Ms. Shilliday. She described being on a hike with friends on Strawberry Point. “I had packed my pockets with chocolate bars and had to stop and rest frequently,” she said. “I had never remembered being so thirsty. I was exhausted, I started eating chocolate bars to try and boost my energy.” 

All that chocolate boosted was her thirst—small wonder when you consider that diabetes is essentially a lack of insulin in the body, thereby preventing your body from converting sugar into energy.

Type I diabetes usually develops in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood, hence its juvenile diabetes nickname. About 10 percent of those with diabetes have type I. With type I diabetes, the body produces very little or no insulin. Type II diabetes is the most common form of diabetes (90 percent) and it usually occurs in adults, but children can be affected as well. With type II diabetes, the body does not make enough insulin or is unable to use it properly.

The exact cause of type I diabetes is not yet known. However, having a family member (parent, sibling) with type I diabetes slightly increases the risk. “I didn’t have any history of diabetes in my family,” said Ms. Shilliday, so that isn’t a given. Experts suggest adults over the age of 40 should be tested for type II diabetes every three years. Anyone with one or more risk factors should be tested more often, those include having a parent, brother or sister with diabetes; being overweight, especially if the weight is mostly carried around the tummy; having a history of gestational diabetes; having given birth to a baby that weighed more than four kg; having high blood pressure or high cholesterol; having been diagnosed with sleep apnea; and/or being a member of high-risk group: Indigenous, African, Asian or Hispanic descent.

Ms. Shilliday stresses that if you have any of the following symptoms, it is important to contact your doctor as soon as practicable: unexplained fatigue and drowsiness; frequent urination; increased thirst or hunger; unexplained weight change; blurred vision; frequent or recurring infections; tingling or numbness in the hands or feet and/or cuts and bruises that are slow to heal. Symptoms of diabetes tend to occur when blood glucose levels exceed the normal range. They may or may not be present when a diagnosis of diabetes is made and they may also occur when a person’s diabetes is not well controlled. 

Diabetes is a progressive disease and there is no cure—that’s the bad news. The great news is that there have been major advances in our understanding of diabetes and how to treat it and that many of its debilitating impacts can be staved off or lessened by simple lifestyle changes.

The lifestyle changes that a person can make include education, so ask your doctor or pharmacist for information about the diabetes education program in your area so you can take charge of your health and learn as much as you can about your condition. Nutrition is a big factor, what a person eats can play an important role in helping regulate blood glucose levels.

Physical activity is incredibly important. Regular physical activity will help manage your blood glucose levels, as well as help you lose weight and improve your overall fitness. The current recommendation is to get 150 minutes per week of aerobic exercise, plus two sessions per week of resistance exercise. However, before starting an exercise program that is more intense than walking, it is important to consult your doctor.

Finally, and don’t we all know this one during the days of pandemic—stress. Take steps to better manage and learn how to reduce stress levels in your day-to-day life.

But, generally, due to diabetes being a progressive disease, even the most dedicated of adherence to a healthy lifestyle will not completely fill the bill—and so there medication may come into play.

Type I diabetes is treated with insulin injections and healthy lifestyle habits. Type II diabetes is managed through physical activity, a healthy diet and, in some Once diagnosed with diabetes, taking regular measure of your blood sugar is important. Until recently, this was largely accomplished through test strips and a tiny poke in the finger to elicit a tiny bit of blood to test. Ms. Shilliday said she is not a big fan of the test strip route, however.

She points out that the tests only give you a snapshot of what your blood sugar levels are at that particular moment. “Your blood sugar might have been high, or low, for hours before and after you test your levels,” she said. It is what your blood sugars are doing over time that can cause the damage.

Ms. Shilliday receives a constant update on where her levels are sitting at through a monitor patch. “Abbott’s FreeStyle Libre flash glucose monitoring system is currently reimbursed under the Ontario Drug Benefit program for any eligible Ontario resident who is living with diabetes and using insulin,” she notes.

“The FreeStyle Libre 2 system can be used with a free app designed to use with the FreeStyle Libre 2 sensors, making it easy to keep track of glucose information on a compatible smartphone.”

In the end, there are 42 factors that affect glucose and blood sugar levels, and despite the 100 years since Banting and Best’s discovery of insulin, the science behind diabetes is still a work in progress, so it is important to work with your physician to find the right path for you in dealing with diabetes.

Lastly, although type II diabetes is linked to lifestyle and diet, Ms. Shilliday is adamant. “It is not someone’s fault,” she said. We live in a society that encourages consumption and even over consumption, she notes. “Colonialism has impacted our systems and changed Indigenous peoples’ diets for the worse.”