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“If you go to 100 doctors, and 99 of them tell you have diabetes, you wouldn’t say: ‘Ah, that’s a conspiracy. All 99 of those doctors got together – with Obama – to try to prevent me from having bacon and doughnuts.'

It’d be funny – except this is about climate change. This was an analogy.”

This was Obama’s recent joke at a DNC event, ironically timed just three days after his presidential proclamation about National Diabetes Awareness Month (this November), which been heralded by the Huffington Post under the headline, “Obama Skewers GOP Candidates…” Personally, though, I don’t think diabetes is that funny.

I don’t pick on Obama because this event is at all anomalous, but because, as the president of a country in which the lack of healthcare funding means that many diabetics have to forego lifesaving diabetes care, his joke – along with the media’s reaction – is symptomatic of a pervasive public attitude. 

In the spirit of the heavy, humour-destroying and joke-missing rant this article is becoming, let’s imagine how Obama’s summary of life as a diabetic – missing out on “bacon and donuts” – might have differed if he could experience having diabetes for a week. Maybe then he could add to his description injecting yourself or ‘bolusing’ on your pump at least four times a day, four to five daily blood tests, and blood sugar ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ which leave you unable to think straight or do anything useful (although you may seem normal to others). If he could experience having diabetes for a lifetime, and potentially risk the long-term complications of the condition (blindness, heart-disease, limb amputation, neuropathy), he could also add those to his list. Would it then still be so much funnier than climate change?

There are so many positives to having diabetes: it makes you more understanding and sensitive to people with other and more serious conditions, and more aware of how lucky you are for the ways in which you are healthy, reducing that subconscious certainty many of us seem to hold that these things just happen to other people. But the assumptions that you are fine just because you don’t complain or exhibit external symptoms – notably from a friend’s boss who refused to give her time off work when she’d had a sleepless night due to problems with blood-sugar control; the idea that anything about sugar can be turned into a witty joke by adding a diabetes-related reference; and the consistent failure to understand the huge difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes (“have you got the good one or the bad one?”), can also be frustrating.

Today is World Diabetes Day – chosen because it marks the birthday of the man who co-discovered Insulin, Frederick Banting. Let’s use it to raise awareness about the symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes so that more people can be diagnosed before their symptoms escalate. Let’s use it to raise awareness of the difference between Type 1 Diabetes (an autoimmune condition usually diagnosed in youth whose cause is still unknown), and Type 2 Diabetes (which is often, though not always, linked to lifestyle and hereditary factors). Let’s use it to help people realise how having uncontrolled blood sugar can affect you both mentally and physically, so fewer well-meaning friends will fail to understand why it’s annoying to be told I’m being stupid when the actual cause is there literally not being enough blood glucose in my brain for it to function. Or to be told I’m lucky that I get to take around so many sweets (actually, I’m never allowed to eat sweets except sometimes when I feel horrible and it’s effectively my medicine, whereas you’re allowed to eat them whenever you like).

Let’s also use it to encourage people to donate to research charities such as Diabetes UK and JDRF which work to find a cure or better treatment for the condition. And let’s encourage governments to put more funding into diabetic treatment. In America, studies show that people with diabetes are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed and to live in poverty than people without diabetes, and for many their biggest fear is that diabetes will reduce them to poverty. And here in the UK, NHS funding issues mean that many people cannot access a diabetes pump, which makes diabetes easier to control on a day-to-day basis and also prevents long-term complications (actually, with 80% of diabetes government spending being used to treat long-term complications, this would probably ultimately save money in the long-term, but that’s democracy for you).

To quote the one of Obama’s two speeches mentioned above which I like better (cheers Obama), I hope more people will soon begin to “recognise the impact diabetes has on people's lives, and rededicate their talents, skills, and knowledge to preventing, treating, and curing it.” 

P.S. If you’re a Cambridge student who has diabetes, we’ve recently set up a Facebook group called ‘Cambridge students with Diabetes’ so that we can find and offer support/advice/jokes/complaints to each other, and we’d love for more people to join!

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