Originally published in November 2010

Are you a little bit country? Or a little bit rock n’ roll? Either way, if you have diabetes, you’ll no doubt find inspiration in George Canyon, the Canadian country singer who rocketed to fame as a runner-up in the 2004 Nashville Star 2 reality TV competition. Since then, he’s had two subsequent blockbuster albums — One Good Friend, and Somebody Wrote Love — and become a huge public proponent for JDRF, traveling the US, Canada, and the world spreading the “gospel” of “you can do anything with diabetes!” Who caught George’s D-awareness appearance on Good Morning America?

For the month of November 2010, George offered proceeds from every download of his new song, I Believe in Angels, to the JDRF. (I’m generally not a country fan, but as a parent, this song gives me goosebumps.)

I was privileged to chat with George directly recently, as he sat in an airport, waiting to fly home to Nova Scotia:

Tell us about your diagnosis at age 14, which has got to be a tough age for a new disease.

The big thing for me wasn’t so much diagnosis, but being told I couldn’t be in the Air Force, be a pilot. My grandma was diabetic, so I’d been around it, and been around medicine all my life.

But here I’d built an entire life plan around the Air Force and becoming a pilot, and I felt like, ‘Now I have nothing.’ That devastated me.

In Canada, you can’t go into the military if you have type 1 diabetes. You can’t even get a private pilot’s license like you can in the US. I finally did get my pilot’s license here in America.

In Canada you can’t be in the military at all if you have type 1 diabetes?

Not now. I say ‘now’ because I think that will change soon.

In my opinion, we are just as good if not better at everything we do. We’re forced to take care of ourselves, to know our bodies inside and out. There are days when I forget I’m diabetic, for God’s sake.

The more society gets educated about our disease and how we live, the more doors will open for us.

So you decided to shoot for a music career instead?

No, no, after the disappointment with the Air Force, I chose to do something about this disease and I talked to my dad about becoming a doctor. I went to university, graduated with honors, completed my pre-med, and was on way to med school.

I was actually recruited by the Air Force in my first year of university — they said they’d changed the rules, so I went through all the written and physical exams. Then it turned out an error had been made by the recruiter, and it was, ‘Oh no, you’re type 1 diabetic and can’t be in the military.’ I just figure that’s the way it goes.

But I was on my way to med school when I ended up going on the road with my band…

Just one more question about being a teen with diabetes: Did you have a good support system socially? For example, was dating difficult for you?

I was very open about diabetes all the time — everybody around me knew I was type 1 diabetic and that was that. I never had a problem meeting girls or anything.

But at the time, there was not an opportunity to find other kids with diabetes. At 16, I searched it out myself. In Halifax there’s a big children’s hospital. I went there trying to help out with the newly diagnosed kids. Later I got involved in diabetic camps and became a liaison between the camp counselors and the medical team. That was a new thing then. You had all these teens who were just regular camp counselors — not diabetic — and all these doctors trying to ‘treat’ the children. They created a position for me, so I could help them work it out. Now thankfully a liaison like that’s a usual thing at the diabetes camps.

I read that you did all kinds of jobs over the years, including being a pilot, police officer and slaughterhouse inspector, and even going to medical school — did diabetes ever get in the way?

I did whatever I had to do to put food on the table and diapers on the babies and make it in the music business. Diabetes never once stopped me.

Being on the road in 1990, traveling and playing six nights a week, I couldn’t eat right, I couldn’t exercise — I wish I’d had pump the back then. Since I went on the insulin pump 4.5 years ago, it’s been unbelievable, the freedom it’s given me. It’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t have supper tonight? That’s OK.’

I’d been on vials and syringes for years. I didn’t care for the pen. I was old school — drawing a needle.

You’re an Animas user, right?

Yes, I use the OneTouch Ping and I love it — even though I seem to have a penchant for tearing infusion sites off myself. My pump is black.

My little girl wanted me to get pink, but I said maybe next time {chuckles}. (My son is 12 and my daughter is 10.)

On average, I test 14 times day. It depends where I am and what I’m doing; sometimes I test upward of that.

CGM stuff is brilliant nowadays, too. I have a Dexcom that I use for 2-3 weeks at a time to see if everything is running smoothly.

Do you worry about your own children getting diagnosed?

No worries, really. They know all about diabetes. If they ever became diabetic, I’m very confident that they would take excellent care of themselves. We’ve never had them tested for it either, no. We’re confident we’d recognize the symptoms…

OK, there’s a part of me that worries for sure. But that’s a parent — that’s what we do.

Sounds like you’re on tour almost non-stop these days. How do you handle food and exercise?

I go to the gym every morning — every hotel we choose has to have a place to workout. If it doesn’t for some reason, then I do that P90x workout in my hotel room. It’s crazy, a whole regime, but I just take parts that I like from it.

I eat a lot of salad, mostly Ceaser salads with chicken, and I do love chocolate — as a treat.

With all that traveling, are you stopped often by security?

I’ve been stopped many times, just to look at my liquids.

I carry some stuff in my main suitcase, which gets checked, but my insulin is with me always — along with syringes, backup infusion sets, extra test strips, batteries, and all of that.

You know, the other day in line, at Toronto airport, there were three of us in a row, all pumpers — how often does that happen?!

Did turning 40 change your perspective on diabetes in any way?

You know what? Enjoy the good days you have. You can overanalyze this disease. You can drive yourself crazy.

The only complications I have from 20 years with this thing is neuropathy in the tips of two toes. It’s so slight that I don’t feel I even have the right to complain.

My grandma really started in the old days. She had to do everything with urinology. I can’t imagine what it was like back then, but she lived into her 70s. That’s pretty motivating right there.

Is diabetes present in the songs you write?

I write as much as I can about family; what’s most important to me is my wife and my kids, and my faith.

But I was at a lot of diabetes camps recently, and heard these kids singing campfire songs. I thought ‘we need some diabetic camp songs!’ Hopefully I can come up some for next summer.

Do you mention diabetes at your ‘normal’ concerts at all?

At a normal show, you pretty much get everything. I talk about my family, diabetes, being an honorary colonel — just everything that’s part of my life.

The head of the military in Canada and the Ministry of Defense decided to make me an honorary colonel for Wing Greenwood Air Force base in 2008.

I get the rank and uniforms, and I’ve been in Afghanistan 3 times now, performing and also visiting Air Force bases. It carries lot of different responsibilities, but nothing combat-related.

Wait, isn’t it frustrating and ironic that they want you now, although type 1 diabetics still aren’t allowed to serve in the military?

A lot of things in this world are frustrating and ironic. I used the experience to say, ‘Hey look, my insulin pump works great when it’s 140 degrees and I’m in fatigues, see?’

I said it’s great. I’m there for the troops and the sacrifice of all those people and their families. I put my personal thoughts aside sometimes.

Also, I talk to kids all the time about it, and I say, ‘Don’t give up on your dream… Someday you can fulfill a career in the military if you want it.’

It’s so powerful, the more we can show society that we are new a type of diabetic, taking care of ourselves, using new tech tools that we never had before: We are qualified to do these jobs!

I would never want to teach kids that if you hide this, you can do what you and live your dreams. That’s wrong. We should be open about it, and keep making as much noise as we can! We have to stay on them — and keep pushing for everything we can get.

Thanks so much, George, for your music, and your amazing D-spirit.