People with diabetes have to combat a myriad of myths and misconceptions. Among the most prevalent is the idea that people with type 2 diabetes are "fat and lazy" individuals who "brought it on themselves." While obesity and lifestyle can certainly contribute to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, it is by no means a catch-all requirement.
That's why the story of John Anderson, a life-long athlete with type 2 diabetes, is so intriguing. John is often described as someone who has a "run for fun, run for others, and run for the sheer love of it" attitude. When diagnosed with diabetes in 1989, he first stubbornly refused to accept it. His moment of clarity came years later when he collapsed while shoveling snow at home. After his wife rushed him to the family doctor, he realized that he needed to stop ignoring his illness; he vowed to take every possible measure he could to stay on top of it. John became one of the first participants in Team Type 2, an off-shoot of Team Type 1, the endurance cyclists who have competed in the Race Across America cycling competition for the past 5 years. This year's Team Type 2 is made up of 18 athletes with type 2 diabetes.
Today, a word with John on this "unusual" combo:
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DM) Since you were a lifelong runner and athlete before your diagnosis, do you think your story will help fight the misconceptions that only fat, lazy people get diabetes due to their own poor habits?
JA) I think it is very important for all to see that anyone can develop type 2 diabetes, and certainly you do not need to fall into any special category for this to happen. Diabetes does not discriminate in any way. While there are those who have developed diabetes who do struggle with lifestyle issues, there are a still a lot of us who are active, conscience of our diets and have healthy weight ratios — and we still have developed diabetes.
I cannot emphasize enough that diabetes is a disease that develops internally and is not "brought on by ourselves." This just does not happen. And yes, I think that the more diabetics who share their stories and make themselves available in their communities, the more we can and will change the thinking that still continues to cloud reality.
Why do you think it was so difficult for you to accept your own diagnosis?
I grew up with a mother who struggled with type 2 diabetes and saw first-hand how difficult this could be to manage on a daily basis. At the time of my diagnosis, I did not want to have to deal with what in 1989 was considered the standard treatments, as I feared the restrictions and the 'separate' lifestyle that I had witnessed growing up. So I chose denial and allowed it to continue for 13 years. Being an athlete played a large part in this being able to happen and put off the inevitable.
In retrospect, I now feel I really wasted that time and the opportunity it has brought me to have a much fuller life, and to be living it on my terms and not on the diabetes' terms.
How did you get involved with Team Type 2?
I was fortunate to be able to come across Team Type 2 as it was being formed in late 2008. Once I found out that I could take my interests and passion for long-distance events to a greater level and talk to others about living with diabetes, I hopped in the saddle right away!
How did participating in the Race Across America effect your own feelings about living with a chronic illness?
Through my participation in the Race Across America, I discovered that what I had previously thought of as 'limits' just really did not exist. Living with any chronic disease, every day you discover a lot about yourself and the how's and why's and what it takes to move forward day after day. After the race concluded, it was a tremendous affirmation to what I believed and continue to live my life by: I can do whatever I want even while dealing with diabetes every day.
When you tell other people that you have type 2 diabetes, what is the typical reaction? Are they surprised?
When I mention that I live with type 2 diabetes, it is almost always the same reaction. I get the once-over look and then get the 'wow, you must have lost some weight!' I follow this with a quick overview of my actual size and diagnosis. The reaction at this point usually does become surprise. Then I take the opportunity to educate about type 2 diabetes and the fact that it is a non-discriminatory disease.
How do you think Team Type 2 has changed the way people look at a condition that is commonly associated with obesity?
Team Type 2 certainly has opened the eyes of many people. We are just like every one else with type 2 in that we are normal, everyday people with jobs and mortgages and families to deal with. We are not their doctor or educator lecturing on the need to do something; we are their equals and are proof that you can have a full, active life by making good choices, being proactive, and maintaining a positive attitude. With that, all things are possible.
Changing a lifestyle from sedentary to active can be a challenge for anyone. What advice do you have for people who might be reluctant to become physically active?
I know it can be both challenging and scary, but the rewards you get right from the start are more than worth the effort. The feelings of empowerment and accomplishment fuel you to want to continue, and very soon you ask yourself what it was that was holding you back.
I also recommend seeking out local resources such as running clubs, bike groups, and mall walkers. These groups are open to anyone and you will be surprised that no matter what shape you're in, they all welcome new members with open arms and support. You can also join diabetes support groups in your area and look for training partners there.
I think you'll find that those who practice a healthy lifestyle with diet and exercise are the most open and welcoming people! They give support and advice and time to others. Seek this out. Become one who does, and you can in turn do for another.
Thank you John. It's always nice to meet a living, breathing myth-buster.