Three Generations Of Women Bond Over Their Shared Diabetes Diagnoses

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In many families across the country, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and their grandchildren, are close and have many traditions. They share secrets about many “firsts” and pass down recipes and family heirlooms. For the grandmother, daughter and granddaughter trio, Lilian Harvey, Ylonda Tomlinson, and Lexie Peterson, they share all of that and one other thing. All three women are living with diabetes.

Lexie Peterson, now 28 years old, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 10. “All I remember is getting picked up from school and going to the doctor,” shared Peterson. “I remember looking at my mom’s face because I didn’t know what diabetes meant when the doctor said that I had Type 1, she looked so scared and so shocked. It scared me because I’ve never seen my mom look scared before.”

Ylonda Tomlinson, Peterson’s mom, is a registered nurse and recognized the symptoms – even though she hoped she was wrong. “I think I was more in a state of shock and denial because it was very hard to accept. I didn’t have anyone in my family on either side that I had known of that was a juvenile diabetic,” explained Tomlinson. The 49-year-old was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at age 47. It was discovered during preoperative testing for a planned procedure. She was not surprised by the diagnosis because she developed gestational diabetes during both of her pregnancies. Lilian Harvey, 65, discovered she had Type 2 diabetes when she had a stroke.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the prevalence of diabetes in non-Hispanic Blacks is 12.1%, versus only 6.9% percent in non-Hispanic whites. In the Black community, diabetes often can be linked to our genes, but while genetics does play a role in predisposing individuals to diabetes, it’s only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

C.C. Weaver, DO MPH shared that it is important to understand the connection between genetic factors, environmental influences, and lifestyle choices for effective prevention and management of Type 2 diabetes. “Those who have a parent or sibling with Type 2 diabetes are at higher risk themselves due to shared genetic factors,” explains Weaver. “Several genetic variants have been associated with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, and these variants can affect insulin production, insulin sensitivity, glucose metabolism, and other biological processes involved in the development of diabetes.”

Amber Robins, MD, MBA, board-certified family physician and lifestyle medicine doctor, shared that certain foods that are eaten in excess over time can push us closer to having diabetes. “Eating more processed foods, especially those that are high in carbs, can lead to high blood sugars and insulin levels,” Robins explains. “Eventually, if your body is not able to correctly process the sugars, it can lead to diabetes.”

Peterson recalls her mom being very direct with her about the consequences of not taking her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis seriously. Her mom even did her own version of “Scared Straight,” she says, taking her to a dialysis clinic to see individuals who had advanced kidney disease and had lost limbs because they failed to manage their diabetes. Tomlinson was very strict when Peterson was first diagnosed because she was very afraid. As the years went by, she loosened up and gave her daughter more freedom in educating herself and making her own choices regarding her diagnosis.

Harvey was also an integral part of Peterson’s support team when she was initially diagnosed. She watched her like a hawk when she was with her, fearful that something would go wrong. Harvey’s husband, and Peterson’s grandfather, took up the mantle of catering for his granddaughter. He adjusted all recipes to ensure that she could eat whatever was prepared in their house. This ultimately improved his health as well because he started eating better. For family holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, all recipes were modified to suit the needs of all three women, and he also makes diabetic candy for “his girls” on Valentine’s Day.

The grandmother, mother, and daughter have always been close, but they admit that sharing a diabetes diagnosis has added another dimension to their relationship. They talk more often and openly about their health. “I’ll share that I went to the doctor, and these were my lab results. This is how I’ve been feeling lately. All of us ask these kinds of questions of each other,” explains Peterson.

She specifically serves as the nexus of their diabetes wellness, having lived with the disease most of her life. “I’m the one who always has the questions,” Harvey admits. “Like when I started using the Freestyle monitor, that thing went off at night. I didn’t know what was going on because nobody explained it to me.” In addition to helping to answer those questions, Peterson says she also checks in with her grandmother to simply ask if she went for a walk lately and to hear how she’s been eating.

For Tomlinson, her daughter has become an accountability partner. Peterson emphasizes that she respects her mom’s decisions as an adult but tries to support her by being honest. Tomlinson recalls when she was eating a bag of candy, and Peterson walked in. “She’ll walk in and say, ‘Mom, what do you think you’re doing? Do you think you should be eating that candy right now? What are your blood sugars? Let me see your Libre app on the phone,” she says.

As evident by the lives of the women in this family, Robins says being diagnosed with diabetes can actually lead to having a healthier lifestyle overall. “Often we are not taught about what foods can help or hurt you. Living with diabetes means that you are able to pay more attention to the food that is fueling your body,” she says.

Tomlinson agrees. If you’re diabetic, moderation is key. You can still eat things and live a good life, but everything needs to be in moderation. “It’s never too late to prioritize your health,” she says. “You could have been pre-diabetic or Type 1 or 2 diabetic for so many years and pushed it to the side or not taken care of yourself. But today, you can start to take care of yourself. You can improve your quality of life for the rest of your life.”

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