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My health story: type 2 diabetes

Susannah Hickling / 13 June 2018

Denise Bunce, aged 52, on her experience of developing type 2 diabetes in her forties.

Healthy eating
Making time for a healthy new diet is a must.

I discovered I had type 2 diabetes by accident in November 2011. Bristol University was running a massive healthcare research programme for which they called in local children born in 1991-92, as well as their parents, for various tests, scans and X-rays. My son Jake fell into that age group, so we went along together, and during the course of the medical checks they found that my blood sugar levels were too high.

Diabetes: need to know

What is Type 2 diabetes? A disease in which either the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin or, more commonly, the body fails to react properly to insulin, the hormone which manages your blood sugar level.

What is it caused by? You are two to six times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes if you have (or had) a parent or sibling with the disease. But lifestyle choices also play an important role, particularly lack of exercise and unhealthy eating habits.

A diet filled with high-fat and sugary foods and lacking in fibre (found in grains, vegetables and fruits) increases the likelihood of developing Type 2 because being seriously overweight carries the risk of your becoming insulin-resistant – i.e. your body cannot use insulin as it should.

How is it normally treated? Though exercise and a better diet can control or even get rid of Type-2 diabetes, you may require medication to control your blood glucose levels, usually in the form of tablets, and possibly more than one type of tablet.

Generally, metformin is the first medication prescribed for Type 2 diabetes. It improves the sensitivity of your body tissues to insulin so that it is used more effectively. It also lowers glucose production in the liver.

However, it may not lower blood sugar sufficiently on its own and you may require insulin injections, using either a syringe or injection pen. Most people need between two and four injections a day. You will also be advised on how to improve your diet and take regular exercise.

I was sent to my GP, where I took the ‘Lucozade test’, in which you have a glassful of the sugary drink after fasting from midnight the night before, then have your blood glucose measured to see how well your body deals with the sugar intake. To my shock, it came out positive for diabetes.

I hadn’t been feeling unwell. There were no symptoms. Diabetes is often like that. But I knew I was overweight and that was a key factor in my developing the condition. I weighed just over 11 stone, although I’m only 5 feet and half-an-inch in height. I’d always be huffing and puffing when I climbed up stairs. Fortunately the doctors felt I didn’t have to go on any course of medication, as long as I made major changes to my lifestyle. So I was sent on a two-day local NHS course for diabetics, where I was given stern advice on diet and exercise. I was told my condition could lead to everything from vision problems, to a greater risk of heart attack and even kidney failure.

These changes weren’t going to be easy. For a start, I’ve got a real sweet tooth. But I would have to say goodbye to chocolates, cakes and ice cream. And there would be no more takeaways, ready meals and processed foods – all containing too much sugar (and fat). I’d have to cook everything from scratch, using only healthy ingredients. This is more expensive, of course, but the main problem for me was finding the time. I had a busy (if sedentary) full-time work schedule as schools finance officer for Bath and North East Somerset Council. When would I do all that cutting and chopping and stirring – and food shopping?

But when you’re told that your lifestyle might shorten your life, it focuses the mind on swapping those bad habits for good ones. It was a turning point for me. I enjoy cooking, so I was determined to make the time for a healthy new diet…and my husband Gary would have to adapt to it too. As he was a bit overweight himself, I reckoned it would do him no harm.

Then there was my new exercise regime. I never used to do any exercise - always claiming I was too busy - but I made the effort and signed up for fitness classes, and then for Pilates too, going to classes three times a week. This is a little easier now that I am working part-time. Gradually the weight began to drop off. In the end I lost two stone, and I feel and look so much healthier. I was especially pleased to have transformed into the slimmer me in time for my daughter Kirsty’s wedding a couple of years ago.

I have regular check-ups – at first they were every six months and now once a year – and my blood glucose levels are within the normal range again. The doctors are really pleased with me, but have warned me that as I get older and start to slow down, making it harder to control my weight, I might have to take tablets for the diabetes. But I want to keep my blood sugar down for as long as possible. I still miss some of the treats I’ve had to give up, especially chocolate (I find the sugar-free chocs for diabetics a very poor substitute!) but on the plus side I’ve learnt to make a lovely sugar-and-fat-free fruitcake.

Two years ago my nephew Dan died of type 1 diabetes at the age of 20. He had been suffering with it for a few years. It was such a tragic loss for the family and affected me deeply. I felt I had to do something to increase public awareness of this disease, potentially so deadly.

I had always loved walking and needed a new fitness goal, so I decided to sign up for the Three Peaks Challenge and raise money for Diabetes UK, the charity that helps and campaigns on behalf of those affected by diabetes. Climbing to the top of the three highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales is a tall order for someone who a few years ago was out of breath climbing a single flight of stairs. But I knew I had to do it, in Sam’s memory. So I launched into the gruelling training.

The Challenge took place last August – three long climbs in three days, in a group of about 40 brave souls. First we flew to Scotland and did Ben Nevis. It was tough. The next day we travelled down to Scafell Pike in the Lake District. That was even tougher, as the climb was over rockier terrain. And the following day we trudged up Mount Snowden in Wales, where it rained all day and our morale was pretty low.

But It was an emotional three days of climbing and I felt Dan was with me every step of the way. We raised £1,885 and the whole experience was awesome. I’ll definitely be taking on more challenges, in both Sam’s name and mine, to raise awareness and help combat diabetes.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.