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Facing the ups, downs of diabetes


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 21 million people in America are believed to be diabetic, and 41 million more are believed to be pre-diabetic, which means that if they don't lose weight and exercise more, their blood-sugar level could dangerously escalate, making them diabetic.

Everybody knows someone who has either died of diabetes or is living with complications, such as a stump for a foot, kidney failure, bad eyes or erectile dysfunction. Every time the topic of diabetes comes up in the news, the narrative reads like a trail of tears. It's enough to make me angry.

I have been a diabetic for 25 years.

I was diagnosed when I was 11 years old. I have only one distinct memory of my time in the hospital: I remember shooting grapefruits full of water with hypodermic needles, practicing, while a nurse looked on. Over the years, my experiences have obviously grown and I have learned how to cope with the disease.

I know what it's like to test my blood sugar several times a day - the more, the better. I know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night and stumble to the kitchen to down Gatorade or a granola bar, literally anything I can get my hands on. I know what it's like to eat when I'm not hungry, and I know what it's like to feel hungry and yet not be able to eat.

Like many diabetics, I also know what it's like to have blood-sugar levels so low that I've lost consciousness, and I know what it's like to have levels so high that my tongue tastes like an orange. Like all diabetics, I know what it's like to feel deflated and tired down to the molecular level. Luckily for me, this feeling goes away because I am in great control. I have managed the blood-sugar roller coaster, but it hasn't been easy.

It's not all bad, being a diabetic.

As a teenager, it taught me independence and self-control, years before most of my peers had any. I was well liked and popular, especially with the girls (I always had candy to give out). Diabetes never got in the way of my schoolwork or athletic pursuits. With only two exceptions, all professions are open to me. So what if I can't fly commercial planes? (I never liked flying anyway.) I can't serve in the military, either (no real loss there). And when my girlfriend wants to go shopping or to see a silly movie, I sometimes feign being light-headed or tell her that I need to exercise instead.

Having diabetes is no laughing matter, but there are funny moments.

For the first few months after my diagnosis, my father gave me injections in my buttocks (I'd hardly even wake up). Somewhere during that time, he inadvertently gave my friend an injection the morning after a sleepover, a monumental mix-up that precipitated an all-day feast for my friend, who had to ingest thousands of calories to offset the extra insulin. To a bunch of 11-year-olds, that was really funny.

There has never been anything that I haven't been able to do because of my illness. In fact, I don't even like to use the words "illness" or "disease" to describe diabetes, because the only thing wrong with me is that my pancreas no longer produces insulin, the hormone that functions as a catalyst by allowing food to be turned into energy. The illness that killed my insulin-producing cells when I was 11 is long gone.

I have skydived, scuba-dived, lived in foreign countries, run marathons and played semiprofessional soccer. My body is doing just fine.

Diabetes (Type I and Type II) is infinitely treatable. Great control is possible; it demands honesty, intelligence and - above all - consistency. Bad control is a direct result of bad habits, stupid behavior and a negative attitude.

It helps to exhibit a little chutzpah and confidence in the face of the challenges.

Until the day a cure is found, I have backed my foe into a corner and temporarily knocked him out. I am still in the ring, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Education and good control have been my trainers. Anything you can do I can do better. Would you like some candy?

Mark Franek is the dean of students at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. His e-mail is

Columnist Steve Chapman will write columns only for Wednesdays through early March.

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