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Are You in Diabetes Denial?

Denying you have type 2 diabetes won't make it go away. Here's how to accept your diagnosis, manage your disease, and get on with your life.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Don White, 68, a retired science teacher from upstate New York, first suspected he had type 2 diabetes when he was 45 years old and his school held a health fair for students and teachers. A simple prick of his finger to test for high blood sugar -- a sign of diabetes -- revealed some unexpected news.

"My numbers were way above normal," says White. "In a matter of days, and a couple of doctor's appointments later, I found out I had type 2 diabetes."

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White and his family were surprised by the diagnosis. He was a healthy guy, ate well, and exercised regularly. If he felt OK, did he really need to manage the disease?

For many people, like White, the words "you have diabetes" aren't easy to hear, and denial can quickly take over -- especially if you don't "feel sick. Sticking your head in the sand and hoping it goes away, however, isn't the answer.

Experts explain to WebMD why diabetes denial can set in and what the risks of ignoring it can mean. They also offer some practical first steps to move from denial, to acceptance, to making important life changes so you can manage your type 2 diabetes and get on with your life.

Denying Type 2 Diabetes

People living with type 2 diabetes have blood sugar -- or glucose -- levels that are above normal because their bodies don't produce enough of the hormone, insulin, that converts sugar into energy. Instead, sugar just builds up in the blood, starving cells of energy and causing damage to nerves and blood vessels as time progresses.

Early on, when these changes are happening in your cells, you might not notice the diabetes symptoms in your day-to-day life, which is one of the reasons why someone might ignore the subtle signs and hope they go away.

"One of the reasons why people often deny having type 2 diabetes is because their symptoms are so minor," says Richard R. Rubin, PhD, professor of medicine and pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University. "Maybe they don't have a lot of energy, or they get up frequently in the middle of the night to urinate ... they feel like they can live with these symptoms and get away with it."

Symptoms of diabetes can include:

  • Increased urinary frequency
  • Feeling very thirsty
  • Fatigue
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Feeling very hungry
  • Blurry vision

Another reason people ignore type 2 diabetes is that acknowledging the disease means considering its possible consequences.

"People deny it because they are told by their health care provider in such dramatic terms how awful it can be," says Rubin, a spokesman for the American Diabetes Association.

The idea of having a leg amputated as a result of damage to nerves and vessels, or going blind because the blood vessels in the eye have damaged the retina, is too scary to accept, he explains, so patients take the "it will never happen to me" approach -- and hope it works.

For others, type 2 diabetes denial sets in because they have a family history with the disease that can stir up difficult memories.

"A lot of people carry a lot of emotional baggage related to diabetes and their families," says Tracy L. Breen, MD, clinical director of the Mount Sinai diabetes program. "They had a parent or sibling who had the disease, and so they know even the early symptoms, yet they ignore them because they don't want to go through the same thing."

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If the level is below 70 or you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.

People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.

However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

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