The advocacy face of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes may be getting a facelift soon with a new documentary film called "A Touch of Sugar." It's narrated by actress Viola Davis who is best known for her roles in movies like Fences and TV show How To Get Away with Murder, and features personal stories of D-peeps of various ethnicities and walks of life in hopes of bringing a fresh level of discussion about the growing T2D epidemic and rise of prediabetes in the United States.

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Image: Viola Davis, Courtesy of Merck

The film debuted in late April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and is being rolled out publicly soon. Its name ties in directly with Viola's southern roots (from South Carolina) and how any form of diabetes is often referred to as "a touch of the suga' " in that part of the country. Viola herself lives with prediabetes and has sisters living with type 2 diabetes.

The film is backed by pharma company Merck as part of their "America’s Diabetes Challenge: Get to Your Goals" program, which urges T2s and those at risk of prediabetes to connect with healthcare professionals to focus on improved health management.

"The film touches on pressing issues affecting patients and families nationwide, such as barriers to treatment, stigma, lack of access to care and nutritious foods, and the need for culturally relevant management tools," the website explains.

To bring these challenges to life, the documentary follows three patients through their personal journeys -- Shenekqual Robertson-Carter, who's preparing for her wedding; Stewart Perry, who's heading to Capitol Hill; Niurka Rodriguez, working to provide for her family; and Susie Katona, who is searching for guidance.

“The film demonstrates the resiliency of the human spirit and contests the national perception of life with type 2 diabetes,” says American Diabetes Association CEO Tracey Brown, who lives with T2D herself and also stars in the film. “As someone living with the disease, I stand proudly with our community and encourage everyone to share what it’s like to live with type 2 diabetes, so we can awaken the world to the everyday realities of this disease. Everybody’s voice counts and matters.”

We had the chance to talk recently with Viola Davis about why she chose to get involved in this diabetes advocacy effort, and what she hopes to see change as a result.

 

Interviewing Actress Viola Davis on Her Diabetes Connections

DM) Hi Viola, can you share your own prediabetes and your family’s T2 story?

Viola) My two sisters, Dianne and Delores, have type 2 diabetes and they’re at different points in managing it. I also had a great aunt who had diabetes and had both her legs amputated before succumbing to it, and my paternal grandmother lived with it too. As to my own prediabetes, I was diagnosed during a routine doctor’s visit and (A1C) blood test about a year-and-a-half ago. So it’s been a part of my entire life, being born into the South… when you got ‘the suga’ you just got the suga’. That’s it. Nothing else as far as how to manage it, and no talk about living with it or being anyone’s advocate. You just got it and sort of waited, until it overcame you. That’s been my experience.

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Viola Davis (center) and her sisters Image: courtesy of Merck

What changed in your life when that prediabetes diagnosis came?

I don’t feel prediabetic. That’s why I was surprised by it. I feel tired sometimes, but most of the time my exhaustion comes from my schedule. Right now, I don’t feel that way because I’m free. I don’t feel those symptoms as much right now. Beyond that, I had to really think about everything in my life as to my health. That meant re-educating myself and assessing many things, including the relationship with my doctor and how he keeps track of my glucose and A1C levels.

It’s been very, very difficult for me. I would be lying if it wasn’t difficult, because I’m 53 and am in menopause. So I got a trainer and am very good about working out, but it’s more than that. It’s not just about exercise and eating healthy, it’s about eating “diabetic healthy” as I tend to say. That means watching the fruit, the carbs (the good and bad kinds), even what sparked my prediabetes and whether it was hormone-related or not. It's all about the management, and how to turn (my health) around. That’s where I am right now, trying to figure it all out and see the wider picture of diabetes. 

Did you get any education early on about diabetes?

No, not until I was diagnosed. That A1C test sort of woke up me. I’d never heard of it before and didn’t know what that was. With my sisters, I always just thought it was specific to diet and exercise all of the time. Yes, that can be a part of it sometimes. But not always, and sometimes it has nothing to do with diet and exercise leading to type 2 diabetes; it’s genetic. That’s why a lot of people don’t know about this and need a (knowledgeable) healthcare provider to help educate them and be their advocate to keep them on track. Most people don’t have that, and they end up doing nothing… because of the lack of information and awareness out there. 

Do you think diabetes screening is taken seriously enough?

It’s really not. There are 30 million people with type 2, and almost three times of that with prediabetes in the country. I know with my own family, growing up in the Deep South, there really is no information about how to live with this. People just keep going on the same way, eating the cornbread and the rice, sugar-candy and starchy foods. All of that is really what propelled me to narrate this film. It’s the silence of it, and the sheer number of people living with it, just didn’t add up to me.

How did you get involved this film project?

A lot of projects just come to me, being the ‘celebrity’ that I am. But not everything moves my heart or spirit. I don’t feel like I can contribute to everything. When Merck brought this to me, I felt like it was right for me. It sparked something within me, and it was sort of a way for me to help myself and my sisters in a small way.

One of the things I realized is that when my A1C was high, as much as I thought I knew about food and as healthy as I thought I was, I was left unsure about my own health. I had nothing to go on. My doctor was telling me what to do on the phone, but it was sort of like white noise. I felt like someone in my position, if I felt this lost, what would the greater population who gets a prediabetes or type 2 diabetes diagnosis be able to do? Who would be their advocate? Something needs to be done to raise awareness.

Do you think most people newly diagnosed with prediabetes or T2D have a clue what to do next?

Hardly. I mean, I grew up in a small town that had a tiny little health clinic and that was it; you might go in for a cut and get a Band-Aid, but there was nothing to help on things like this. We’re living in a day and age where diabetes is a disease… it’s not a condition. This is a disease that’s in crisis mode. When you look at the 30 million with type 2 and 84 million with prediabetes, and most of them don’t even know it. That’s not including kids or people with type 1, of course. Most people I mention prediabetes or type 2 diabetes to, their eyes just glaze over. I’m always interested in giving a voice to something that has no voice, and this was my way of doing that.

What do you think are big reasons why people aren’t aware of the basics on prediabetes or type 2 diabetes?

I feel that it’s ignorance. You can’t talk about something you don’t know anything about. When I was diagnosed with prediabetes and started talking to my friends about it, they were completely baffled. And these are people who are well-educated in life and about their health overall. Especially that A1C test, it really confuses people. I feel like it’s ignorance and don’t think people see this disease as serious. They don’t see a lot about it in their communities, and there are certainly preconceived notions and stigma about type 2 diabetes. 

What message would you want to relay to the general public about diabetes stigma?

I would urge people to not criticize people with diabetes or prediabetes. We need support. There are many people out there who judge those with diabetes, whether it’s about exercise or weight. It’s seen as something you can “control” and if you get it, it’s a result of being overweight or eating bad or some fault. There’s a lot of stigma involved. I truly think that’s (why) people stay in silence. Even the term ‘suga’ and how there’s often nothing before or after that… that comes from ignorance. That’s why this conversation is so important.

What do you hope comes from releasing this new film?

Even having a website where people can access the Internet and learn more can make a world of difference for people who don’t know. Just those conversations it can start, not only how diabetes can impact your own life but also of those around you, is important. How it can be generational in your family, and how it can interfere and interact with everything else – heart disease, other conditions, life changes – there’s a whole slew of information that people aren’t getting but they need to know about. That includes me, too! I may be an actor, but I don’t know everything. Actors definitely don’t know everything!

 

Thank you, Viola, for raising your voice and being a part of this project... and of course, for taking the time to chat with us here at the 'Mine.

 

Where to View the Film and Find Diabetes Resources

Beyond Viola, we're excited to see other notable diabetes voices in the film, including ADA CEO Brown as well as D-Dad Stewart Perry, who's lived with type 2 for almost three decades and is highly involved in diabetes advocacy issues.

A spokeswoman for Merck tells us there's no set date yet for the film's public debut, but they're working urgently to make sure it's available soon at film festivals, community screenings across the U.S., and eventually a release in theaters. Many groups -- including government officials, educational institutions, healthcare providers, advocacy groups, and faith-based organizations -- have already expressed interest in viewing and sharing the film.

Those interested can request a DVD for their community screening at www.atouchofsugarfilm.com, we're told, and can also follow the America’s Diabetes Challenge Facebook page for future updates on the documentary.

We look forward to viewing this new documentary before long -- possibly at a special screening being planned for the upcoming ADA Scientific Sessions in San Francisco in early June.

Interestingly, we have word that the ADA, the country's biggest diabetes organization, will be announcing a "major rebranding" effort later this week -- and that will capture the theme behind this new A Touch of Sugar documentary film.

With half the American population living with diabetes and/or prediabetes, the ADA is anxious to refresh its image to be more appealing to a wider swath of people, and make sure those people know they aren't alone and have access to help they may need. We're excited to see where they take it. Stay tuned!