What Not to Say to a Person with Type 2 Diabetes
People with type 2 diabetes have a lot on their plates: educating themselves, managing their diets, exercising, managing medications or any supplements, thinking and planning the day ahead, making appropriate doctor appointments with various specialists, testing blood glucose levels regularly, getting various other tests taken regularly, dealing with burnout, depression, etc. We are like little walking libraries of medical knowledge and self-awareness. Thus, we can take it very personally when we hear criticism or correction regarding our choices – no matter how well meaning.
To help navigate the waters of communication for those who may be unfamiliar, here are some of the most common things that are generally considered insensitive, presumptuous, or even downright rude when said to a person with diabetes:
“You can’t eat that!”
Many folks are very well meaning, and think that diabetes has to do with avoiding eating sugar, or avoiding eating meat, or fat, but our knowledge of diabetes management and diet has changed a lot since the 1980s. Persons with diabetes can eat most anything, in moderation, and should not be policed or embarrassed during social gatherings.
“But you CAN eat that!”
Some persons with diabetes have other conditions to manage, with various food sensitivities, or may need to control or limit certain kinds of foods. Never make assumptions about what anyone with diabetes should have – unless they themselves have specified any issues to you.
Instead – Enjoy the person with diabetes’ company. If you want to be helpful, you may let them know what a menu will be, or ask if they have any special food sensitivities — chances are they were probably going to call you anyway.
At least you don’t have cancer.
Cancer is often a devastating disease. But when you say this to someone with diabetes, you are in fact, negating the challenges of their condition, plus, making persons with cancer sound as though they have hopeless journeys. Like cancer, diabetes is a very individual, challenging, sometimes scary, and dangerous disease in its own right – taking more lives every year than AIDS and breast cancer combined.
“Oh, you can cure yourself from that: just do x, y, z…”
There is currently NO cure for diabetes. A person with diabetes has a plan they have established with their clinician and other medical professionals, in order to be in the best control. These decisions are personal and private, and often of a serious magnitude. Never suggest supplements, gimmicks, hearsay, or ask someone, for example, why won’t they just go get gastric bypass surgery (it’s really no one’s business but that of the person with diabetes.)
Instead – Enjoy the person with diabetes’ company. There’s no need to mention their diabetes at all. If they mention being frustrated by the condition, empathize with them: “I feel your frustration” and “I’m sorry you’re going through that” are wonderful ways of acknowledging someone’s journey.
“My [relative] had diabetes, and their [extremity] fell off.”
Some people can’t help share their gory stories once they hear someone has diabetes. Yes, diabetes can result in a lot of unpleasant complications – but people with diabetes don’t need to be reminded of them. Diabetes complications are always in the back of their minds, adding to their stress levels. Besides, it’s just not polite conversation. In the same way you wouldn’t share your hemorrhoid stories, so would a person with diabetes not want to share their complication stories.
“I completely understand diabetes, my aunt Bonnie had it.”
The only person who completely understands having diabetes is the person who has diabetes. While we may be familiar with some of the ins and outs of the condition, we will never completely understand what it’s like – even for others living with it. Diabetes is a very complex condition, with many types and many stages, affecting emotional health, daily life, relationships, and an individual’s self identity, spontaneity and independence, etc.
Instead – Ask questions which let a person with diabetes express themselves in their own words, such as “How is that like for you?” and offer empathy, such as “that must be very challenging.” Let a person with diabetes guide the conversation, and if they change the topic… simply enjoy the person with diabetes’ company.
Diabetes is often a very socially awkward condition. It puts us in the spotlight enough as it is, when the goal of any gathering should be to ENJOY the gathering itself. When we are mindful of how we communicate and think about others’ health conditions, we help them see that they are more than those conditions – that they are human beings who can still enjoy a moment of happiness and individuality, outside of diabetes.