Diabetes Hasn’t Stopped Theresa May From Flying High

The United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May has not let her diabetes diagnosis hold her back. 

Theresa May was diagnosed with Type-one diabetes in 2013. She has never allowed her condition to negatively impact on her ability to do her job. All evidence points to her strength, as she takes her position as the country’s second female Prime Minister.

There are currently 3.2 million people in the U.K. living with diabetes. However, only 10% of adults get diagnosed with Type-one diabetes.

Theresa May’s Rare Diabetes Diagnosis

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Theresa May’s case is quite rare as Type-one diabetes usually develops before the age of 40. For this reason, it is often referred to as juvenile diabetes. May, in fact, was originally mistakenly diagnosed with Type-two diabetes.

She came down with a heavy cold in November 2012. Her first thought was to get it checked out by her GP. May had no idea that this visit to the GP  would change her life forever:

She mentioned that she had recently lost a lot of weight. Initially, she hadn’t thought much about this and had put it down to her strenuous job. Her GP conducted a blood test and discovered that she had diabetes.

The news came as a shock. Although, in retrospect, she had some classic symptoms. Aside from the weight loss, she was also drinking more water than usual and visiting the bathroom frequently. When the medication she was given for Type-two diabetes didn’t work, she went for further tests. They came back positive for diabetes Type-one.

Her diagnosis of Type-one diabetes came as a shock:

“My very first reaction was that it’s impossible because at my age you don’t get it. But, then my reaction was: ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to inject’ and thinking about what that would mean in practical terms.”

The change in her diagnosis meant going from taking tablets to two insulin injections per day, which has now increased to four.

“I hadn’t appreciated the degree of management it requires and I hadn’t appreciated, for example, the paradox that while everyone assumes diabetes is about not eating sugar, if you have a hypo, then you have to take something that’s got that high glucose content.”

Recognising Type-One Diabetes:

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“In Type-one diabetes the beta cells in the pancreas (the cells that produce insulin) are wrongfully targeted and destroyed by the autoantibodies of the immune system. It is not clear why this happens. Researchers have theorized that it is a combination of genetic predisposition and certain environmental triggers that prompt the immune system to destroy the beta cells,” explains Paediatrician Kath Megaw.

Megaw lists the following as possible triggers:

  • Viral infections
  • Low levels of vitamin D
  • Trauma
  • Other environmental factors

Without the presence of insulin, the body has no means by which to draw glucose into its cells and convert it into energy. As a result glucose builds up in the blood stream. The body then attempts to counteract this by getting rid of glucose through frequent urination, which leads to excessive thirst and dehydration.

“Because the body has insufficient insulin to transport the glucose into the cells, it switches to burning fatty acids, producing acid ketone bodies. High levels of ketone bodies in the blood, accompanied by constant high blood sugar levels and a complete lack of insulin, causes ketoacidosis (DKA),”says Megaw.

Megaw lists the following as DKA symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Unusual sweet smell on the breath
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Laboured breathing
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Tiredness
  • Coma

Many Type-one diabetes diagnosis occur as a result of expressed DKA symptoms.

Theresa May had many of these symptoms.

But it took time to establish the diagnosis, as intense fatigue was a common side effect of her job. She explains:

“The symptoms are tiredness, drinking a lot of water, losing weight, but it’s difficult to isolate things. I was drinking a lot of water. But I do anyway. There was weight loss but then I was already making an effort to be careful about diet and to get my gym sessions in.Tiredness – speak to any politician and they will tell you the hours they work. Tiredness can be part of the job. It is full on.”

Managing A High Power Job With Diabetes

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As a woman in her position, she also experiences added challenges to managing her condition:

“The extra issues for me are that I eat out a lot. I go to a lot of functions where I am eating and I speak at dinners, so that brings an added complication. When I’m going to do a debate or speaking at a conference, I have to make sure that I’ve tested and know where I am, so I can adjust as necessary.”

She has even had to break the House of Commons rule on not eating in the Chamber.

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“There was one occasion when I had been expecting to go into the Chamber later, but the way the debates were drawn up meant I had to go in at 11am and I knew I wasn’t coming out till about five,” she recalls. “I had a bag of nuts in my handbag and one of my colleagues would lean forward every now and then, so that I could eat some nuts without being seen by the Speaker.”

Despite handling one of the most challenging jobs in the world, May does not see herself as having a greater challenge in managing her condition than anyone else.

“In basic management terms, it’s the same for everybody. You have to get into a routine where you are regularly doing the testing.”

She believes in being upfront about her condition:

“I don’t inject insulin at the table, but I’m quite open about it. For example, I was at a dinner last night and needed to inject and so I just said to people: ‘You do start eating, I’ve got to go and do my insulin’. It’s better to be open like that.”

Refusing To Let Diabetes Hold Her Back

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Theresa May hopes that, above all, by managing the demanding role of Prime Minister, she can help to dispell the myth that having diabetes has to hold anyone back.

“I would like the message to get across that it doesn’t change what you can do. The more people can see that people with diabetes can lead a normal life doing the sort of things that other people do, the easier it is for those who are diagnosed with it to deal with it,” explains May.

“The fact is that you can still do whatever you want to do, for example, on holiday my husband and I do a lot of quite strenuous walking up mountains in Switzerland, and it doesn’t stop me doing it. I can still do things like that and can still do the job.

She encourages others to challenge people’s assumptions about diabetes:

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“But, people who don’t understand it, assume that the fact you have a condition means there must be something you can’t do, that it must change how you live your life in some way.

“And, of course, it does change your life in that you have to make sure you’ve got the right diet and that you’re managing your blood sugar levels, but, beyond making sure you’ve got that routine, you just get on with other things exactly the same.”

Watch Her First Speech As Prime Minister Below