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Dealing With the Fear of Diabetes-Related Complications

Diabetes is a chronic disease that can lead to serious health complications including kidney failure, nerve damage, eye damage, heart disease, and stroke. Here’s how three patients described the effects of diabetes complications on their lives.

Long-term health complications aren’t inevitable for people with diabetes. However, it's important for patients to be aware of how the condition affects the entire body and how diabetes-related complications can affect their quality of life. 

Diabetes increases the risk of complications like kidney failure, nerve damage, vision problems, heart disease, and lower-limb amputations. Managing diabetes is already hard enough, and thinking about long-term complications can cause even more stress. We heard from three people with diabetes who described their feelings about potential complications – and how to cope with them.

Patient considers what the future might cost her

Ashley Donahue was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2022 with an A1C of 11%. She was later diagnosed with latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA), which is a slow-progressing form of diabetes that shares features of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

With diet, exercise, and metformin, Donahue was able to bring her A1C down to 7%. While she doesn’t currently have any diabetes-related complications, Donahue said she understood their impact even before being diagnosed. 

“My boyfriend was his father's caretaker for several years,” she said. “His dad suffered from severe complications [of diabetes like] macular degeneration, neuropathy and loss of mobility, dialysis for his kidneys, gangrene, and abdominal trouble, which unfortunately, ended up claiming his life.” 

Donahue described her own diabetes diagnosis as a surprise, but she felt like she had the support to manage as best she could. 

“Of course, it was a shock when we learned I had diabetes,” Donahue said. “I was determined to turn my diabetes around, or at the very least, successfully manage it.”

Even without current complications, Donahue still voiced concerns about what her long-term health might look like with diabetes when it comes to her future plans for starting a family

“I didn't really think too much about motherhood before, but since this diagnosis, it really put into perspective what I want in life,” she said. “I want to live long enough to be old and wrinkly but healthy, thriving, and still kicking it. I want to be a mom who my kids are proud of because they know what I did to get here.”

Learning to cope with multiple diabetes complications

Rachael Chalcraft was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 4 years old. She described feeling like her doctor used fear-based tactics to describe diabetes complications like vision loss and kidney damage. While Chalcraft was aware of them, she didn’t believe that they would actually happen. 

In March 2019, Chalcraft was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy – an eye complication caused by damage to the blood vessels of light-sensitive tissue in the retina. High glucose levels can degrade blood vessels in the eyes over time, leading to decreased vision and even blindness.

“When the resident came in the room after my first hemorrhage and said ‘You have stage 4 diabetic retinopathy’ I just burst into tears,” Chalcraft said. 

“I knew it was bad, but didn't really know a whole lot about it. I didn't know what was going to happen, what I'd have to go through, or whether it was reversible,” she said. “There was a lot of guilt, shame, fear, and worry. I was terrified and the unknown was really hard to deal with.”

Her first year with retinopathy took a toll on her mental health. After her diagnosis, Chalcraft was considered legally blind and had to rely on others to help her with tasks she’d normally do on her own. 

“I couldn't take myself to appointments. I couldn't do basic tasks like grocery shopping or chores around the house. I felt like I couldn't do anything. That was all very hard for me,” she said. 

On top of her vision loss, Chalcraft later discovered that she also had high blood pressure and mild kidney damage. 

“Add on top of that the worry for the future, and the shame and guilt that I had done this to myself,” she said. “My mental health was complete garbage. It was legitimately the worst year of my life.”

Chalcraft said her personal approach is taking each day as it comes, and staying vigilant about other potential complications. She works closely with her doctors to monitor her health and avoid any other diagnoses in the future.

Managing diabetes doesn’t always mean a complication-free life

Some of the most common complications – like kidney failure, nerve damage, and eye problems – can be prevented if caught early on. Other times, diabetes-related health problems crop up no matter how well you’re managing the condition.

TeeAira Averette has lived with type 1 diabetes for 14 years. She watched firsthand as her grandfather struggled with his own diabetes complications, even though he was managing his diabetes as best he could. 

“Watching my loved ones go through it has made me want to take the best possible care of myself for the long haul,” Averette said. 

While she hasn’t been diagnosed with diabetes-related complications, Averette is aware that even with proper management, complications could still be on the horizon. 

Why talking about diabetes complications matters

People with diabetes say that related complications should be at the forefront of conversations about diabetes. Talking about it with friends, family, or other individuals with diabetes can help others relate to the struggles they’re experiencing.

Chalcraft reflected on how the community helped her while she coped with her additional diagnoses. 

“Finding a community that has dealt with the complications I've been diagnosed with really helped me feel less alone,“ she said. 

“Raising awareness is so important so that no one feels as alone as I did,” she said. “Complications isn't a dirty word, and they shouldn't be hidden.”

To learn more about diabetes-related complications and how to handle them, check out these articles: