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Growing up with Type 1 diabetes

Inside the life of young Australians living with diabetes.

Daily injections, constant checking of blood sugar levels with a finger prick and watching everything you put in your body.

That’s just a typical day in the life of one in more than 120,000 Australians living with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition in which the pancreas is unable to naturally produce a substance called insulin.

In Australia today, Type 1 diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases in children – it occurs more frequently than cancer, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. It differs from Type 2 diabetes which is more commonly diagnosed in adults, and often stems from excess body weight, high blood pressure and poor lifestyle choices.

For Abbie Galea, a life without diabetes is something she’s never known. The 22-year-old was diagnosed with the condition when she was only two, but tries not to let the disease rule her life.

“I’m definitely not one of those people that is defined by my illness,” she told upstart.

“I have my battles where I’ll wake up in the middle of the night dripping in sweat and disorientated because I’m having a hypoglycaemic episode, and I know that often that’ll throw my sugar levels out for the rest of the day.”

Jayden Cameron, 21, has also been living with the disease since he was young

“I was a typical chubby seven-year old who liked eating and everything. But for a period of roughly two weeks I was drinking excessively, sweating heaps and wetting the bed, which I had never done growing up. So that was sort of the indication to Mum that ‘Hey, something’s not right here,’” he told upstart.

Cameron learned to adjust to managing his disease faster than his mother.

“I guess at such a young age you think, ‘Oh well this is just something different.’ I think my mum suffered more with the processes of injecting and everything but I was pretty calm. At that age I was playing cricket and basketball so as long as I was still able to do them then I was happy.”

Kim Henshaw, a Consumer Advisor and Families Program Coordinator at Diabetes Victoria says it is is often the case that initial diagnosis can sometimes have a larger effect on those caring for the child.

“Parents and carers deal with a huge shock at the time their child / children are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes,” she said.

“But this is very dependent on their previous exposure to Type 1 diabetes and their parenting style.

“Challenges can include barriers to accessing accurate information about Type 1 diabetes and management strategies, clinical resources and peer support options for them and their children.”

In her own experiences, Henshaw has seen a variety of families struggle to cope with the change of lifestyle but despite the challenge, she has one main piece of advice for families.

“The advice I would give to people struggling with maintaining their diabetes would be to make sure they stay connected with diabetes health professionals, no matter how they are feeling about their diabetes,” she said.

“Clinical supervision is incredibly important. But not just that; the health professionals need to be supporting them in their individual choices. If this is not happening, I would suggest looking for different health professionals for them to see for their diabetes care.

Henshaw can speak form experience, too, having lived with diabetes herself for 32 years.

“While a lot has changed since I was a child, I can develop rapport with families based on having Type 1 diabetes also. It breaks down a lot of barriers when you can say, ‘I understand, I’ve been there too.’”

Jackie Saxby, the mother of Jayden Cameron, is one parent experienced a change in lifestyle following her son’s diagnosis, admitting prior to learning of his condition she thought very differently about it.

“In general, people who are not affected by Type 1 diabetes are quite ignorant to the disease. I was one of those people and only when I arrived at the Royal Children’s Hospital did I realise the seriousness of this disease,” she told upstart.

“To be honest, prior to Jayden being diagnosed I would never have believed that I would be able to inject him twice daily with his insulin dosage.

“But I had no choice as this was the only way I would keep my son alive.”

Upon learning of Jayden’s diagnosis, Saxby knew things were about to become very different in her household.

“Everything changed when Jayden was diagnosed, grocery shopping was at first a challenge as time had to be taken to read food labels,” she said.

“Of course, when going anywhere, the time of day would determine if insulin needed to be taken, an extra bag would be taken that contained foods and drink in case he required sugar quickly.

“At the beginning it was stressful for me as a mother while he was at school, worrying if he was going to be okay. The school he attended were extremely helpful and went above and beyond to learn all about the disease and ensured their first aiders were educated about this disease.

“When it came to birthday parties, sometimes it was a bit difficult as I had to ensure the parents of his friends were aware and of course ask them to cater for his dietary needs as well.”

After managing the disease for well over a decade, Camerons now understands how to look after himself on a day-to-day basis, despite receiving continued support from those closest to him.

“When I was younger, mum pretty much controlled everything I ate and drank, and the quantities of it because of the risk of too much sugar and everything else,” he said.

“It’s the realisation that my destiny is in my hands, in the fact that if I can’t be bothered looking after myself, the results will show with high blood sugar levels and other associating factors.

“I’m lucky I have a caring family and girlfriend who are always like, ‘make sure you do this and get regular check-ups,’ and that’s pretty much all you can do in terms of maintaining it.”

Despite many people assuming that diabetes can present various challenges in day-to-day life, Cameron says it all comes back to understanding what you are dealing with.

“I guess just making sure I know my limitations. When I first got diagnosed it was more the quantity of what you’re eating rather than what it actually is,” he said.

“Type 1 and 2 easily get confused with each other and most people assume I can’t eat the yummy foods like chocolate or ice cream and enjoy a beer, but I can, it’s just limitations on those certain things.”

Abbie Galea, who learned to manage her own injections at age seven, has found ways to balance her diabetes and her love for sports.

“I think playing sport and exercising only makes me healthier. I always make sure my levels are ok before I exercise and I drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and most of the time I eat something small to keep my levels balanced.

“Of course, there’s the occasional time where I’ll have a hypo while exercising and I feel absolutely horrible, and there’s times where I’ll eat too much before or after and my levels will be too high.

“Overall though, playing sport/exercising and having a balanced diet helps me control my diabetes.”

Despite knowing that she will face dealing with diabetes on a daily basis, Galea says she does not want to let it get in the way of her living a normal life.

“I’m sure some people let their diabetes cripple them into living their day-to-day life with caution, but I could never imagine my illness, that I’ll have for the rest of my life, changing who I am or limit me from living my best life,” she said.

Monique Quercio is a final year Media and Communications (Sport Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @monlouise96.

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