When Amanda Guy heard the doctor say, "Your son has Type 1 diabetes," five years ago, she felt her then-two-year-old had received a life sentence of illness, needle pain and food restrictions. But she's not alone with those erroneous assumptions.
The pending murder trial of Emil and Rodica Radita, who allegedly refused to treat their son Alex's Type 1 diabetes, sadly showcases how modern medicine has yet to conquer outdated misunderstandings of this medical condition.
Here are the top myths about Type 1 diabetes we need to dispel:
Myth #1: Type 1, Type 2 and gestational diabetes are all the same
Type 1 diabetes can be diagnosed in adults, but is more typically found in kids and teens. It's caused by the immune system mistakenly killing insulin cells made in the pancreas. Bodies need insulin to convert blood sugar to usable energy. People with Type 1 diabetes must inject themselves with life-saving insulin via needles or pumps, which are pager-sized, electronic devices used to deliver insulin under the skin through a small tube.
Type 2 diabetes more often develops in adults, but can also develop in children when their bodies produce insufficient insulin or need help to utilize insulin. Treatments include exercise, healthy eating and sometimes pill medications or insulin injections.
Gestational diabetes can occur temporarily during pregnancy when hormones create high blood sugar levels that normal insulin production can't manage. As a result, healthy eating, exercise and sometimes insulin are needed.
Myth #2: Type 1 diabetes is the "bad" kind young people die from
Diabetes researcher, professor and clinician Dr. Bruce Perkins, of Toronto General Research Institute, shares, "Both Type 1 diabetes, and the more common Type 2 diabetes, carry terrible risks. Fortunately, we have good strategies and medications for managing them well to prevent these complications."
He adds, "I believe in this day and age, someone with diabetes — given a commitment to managing it well — can expect to have a life as fulfilling and long as someone without."
Myth #3: People with Type 1 diabetes can't eat sweets, junk food, chocolate or drink alcohol
"There is nothing people with Type 1 diabetes can't eat or drink, in moderation, with a proper strategy for managing the effects of the food or drink consumed," says Marlene Grass, RN, a diabetes educator for over 40 years and the founder of the Charles H. Best Diabetes Centre.
Myth #4: Type 1 diabetes happens when you eat too much sugar or are overweight
There are no lifestyle causes related to Type 1 diabetes whatsoever. It is an autoimmune disease.
Myth #5: When kids with Type 1 diabetes reach adulthood, they can take pills instead of needles
All people with Type 1 diabetes need insulin to live, regardless of age.
Myth #6: People with Type 1 diabetes get sore fingers from blood sugar testing
According to Grass, alternating fingers and avoiding finger tips — where nerve endings reside — minimizes soreness, as does the choice of lancing device and which lancet penetration setting is used.
Myth #7: People with diabetes can't have an active lifestyle
Wendy Collins, mom to a 15-year-old named Aidan, says he's had Type 1 diabetes for 11 years and still plays competitive hockey and soccer: "I used to run to the ice between periods to give him a dose of insulin. Thankfully his coach found a way he could wear his pump safely during play."
Dr. Perkins agrees that most patients can find successful ways to be active.
Myth #8: Insulin is a cure
Insulin is a life-saving medication, but not a cure.
Myth #9: Insulin pumps take care of Type 1 diabetes for you
Even with a pump, Guy says she still has to manage her son Jack's multiple daily and overnight blood sugar checks and treat low or high levels. Every three days she refills and recalibrates the pump, and changes its site on Jack's body. Guy must also count the carbohydrates in everything he eats, as insulin doses are based on carb consumption.
Myth #10: There is only one correct way to manage Type 1 diabetes
Managing Type 1 diabetes well requires constant balancing of insulin taken, carbohydrates eaten and exercise done. Stress, hormones and illness also have an effect, so a one-size-fits-all formula doesn't exist.
"Blood sugar management is complex — no two patients have the same patterns, and even in one patient, no two days are the same," confirms Dr. Perkins.
Myth #11: Diabetes medication and supplies are free in Canada
Some provincial programs, private insurance plans or employee benefits help subsidize the costs that, Guy and Collins confirm, can exceed $500 a month. But Dr. Perkins laments, "I am a bit disheartened we don't yet have consistent public programs funding basics like insulin and syringes."
Myth #12: It's OK to refer to people with diabetes as "diabetics"
Labelling somebody by their medical diagnosis doesn't acknowledge the many facets of their unique personality. Diabetes is a medical condition a person may have; not who they are.