Black woman using diabetes test kit
Credit: Blend Images - Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month.

Lost limbs, swollen feet, and an array of health complications are normally best reserved for an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Sadly, I’ve bared witness to these stories outside of Shondaland, seeing and hearing them through tales of family members who have fallen victim to complications of the big three: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. As everyone’s favorite problematic holiday quickly approaches during National Diabetes Awareness Month, I can’t help but think about how the disease still affects so many people who look like me. I’m alarmed by how so much of the Black community falls prey to poor management of the disease.

I remember being a young girl quizzically watching my paternal grandmother wince and say that “it was time to check her sugar.” At the time, I had no idea what to make of the weird gizmo that made her scowl and turned her already bruised fingertips bright red. All I knew was that she had to “check her sugar” every day, and the numbers on that tiny display screen mattered.

By the the time I was cognizant of diabetes, I knew enough to throw many a side eye to my grandma every time I saw her eat something that wasn’t fruit or vegetables. I was a preteen with my hands on my hips, frowning and telling relatives to not even touch a fun-sized piece of candy.

I was convinced the disease would come for us all.

I was in high school when my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with the disease. Any hope of a healthy diet helping her body regulate its blood glucose was lessened when she was prescribed insulin. Finger pricks had turned into a daily needle in the abdomen. While she gave herself daily injections, I’d stay on the phone with her, listening to the anxiety in her voice.

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I had long been aware of family members who’d had entire limbs amputated as a result of diabetes. I couldn’t help but feel shocked when I heard them discuss these amputations as though they were as commonplace as breathing.

Maybe it is because “13.2 % of all African-Americans aged 20 years or older have diagnosed diabetes,” according to the American Diabetes Association.

It could be because of the lack of access to nutritious foods in many communities — and the other shitty truths of living with a lower socioeconomic status. Inferior health care and treatment included.

Basically, it feels like diabetes is appearing in Black folks at the same rate that Oprah gives free stuff to her audience. You get diabetes; you get diabetes. We all get diabetes.

It’s heartbreaking to know what the improper management of diabetes can do, to know that it can affect one’s quality of life — or end it. Yet I’ve seen far too much of my immediate family continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

In 2013, my mom was diagnosed with diabetes.

It was Thanksgiving day, and in the midst of stuffing a turkey, she lost consciousness.

I was at my father’s house, watching the parade and thinking about the food I’d soon eat, when she called from the hospital. She told me that her skyrocketing blood glucose levels had caused her to pass out. On top that, her diabetes had gone untreated for so long that her kidneys were now affected.

I’d already spent a good portion of my life watching my mom chug sodas and eat candy, and generally do a poor job of monitoring her health. I was afraid that this would be how I would lose her.

After her diagnosis, she constantly vowed to do better. She’d make valiant efforts to put something green on her plate, but I could tell that her children’s constant reminders of her disease, as well as our shaming of her bad habits, frustrated her

To this day, I can’t help but feel like a mama trying to sneak a small child veggies — except it’s less about getting her to eat two to three servings a day, and more about getting her to add more years to her life.

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The last straw convincing me that I would be next was my older brother’s diagnosis at the young age of 29, debunking my belief that only older relatives were targets of diabetes.

Much like my mother and her mother, my brother was placed on Metformin, a common medication for treating type 2 diabetes. Like them, he often deals with daily stomach pains and nausea as a side effect of the medication.

I have not been diagnosed with the disease, but I was prediabetic at one point.

I’ve seen enough people I love fall sick from it. I know that there are outside factors shaping our quality of life and contributing to the disease — but type 2 diabetes is very related to lifestyle. And my own family members’ stubbornness and poor choices have made my loved ones’ lives more complicated.

My culture is based on family traditions, but it’s time for diabetes to stop being one of them.