3 questions for Sherri Shepherd on living a 'full life' with type 2 diabetes

(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo courtesy of Sherri Shepherd)
(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo courtesy of Sherri Shepherd)

Sherri Shepherd was worried about moving to New York when she got the opportunity to be a permanent co-host on The View in 2007. Not because she was anxious about city life or the new job, but instead because she was dealing with symptoms of undiagnosed type 2 diabetes, including a frequent need to urinate.

"I was going to look for an apartment and I was so terrified because I was always going to the bathroom. It was my body trying to get itself together, it was getting rid of all of the sugar. It was coming through, you know, going to the bathroom," the actress and TV personality tells Yahoo Life. "I was terrified because there were no Ubers at the time and I'm like, how am I going to be taking the train or a taxi to look at apartments when I have to go to the bathroom all the time?"

Diabetes was something that she was generally aware of at the time because of a long family history with the disease, noting that diabetic complications led to the deaths of both her mom and aunt. But it wasn't until later that year that she addressed her symptoms with a doctor and received the diagnosis of type 2 diabetes herself. Here, as part of her partnership with Abbott's Countdown at a Crossroads campaign, which focuses on individuals' stories of diabetes for National Diabetes Awareness Month, she talks about its effect on her life.

1. What did you know about diabetes while growing up?

"I do remember my mother using a lot of test strips, because that's the way you would test your urine [for diabetic analysis]. But I also saw a lot of my mom not taking care of herself," says Shepherd. "I saw an awful lot of my mom eating sugar, eating candy, drinking red fruit punch. And I saw a lot of my mother having to go to the hospital because she had an insulin issue."

While the "insulin issue" was, of course, diabetes, Shepherd recalls the disease being referred to as "the sugar" among her family and the larger Black community. "When you call something 'the sugar,' that's a really sweet term. It allows you to kind of step back and disassociate from the fact that you're not eating correctly or not taking care of your health. 'The sugar' seemed different from diabetes — diabetes is so [daunting]."

The disease, however, became more disconcerting and dangerous as it went unnamed and unmanaged. She remembers "losing people," including her mom and aunt, as a result.

2. What symptoms were you experiencing that led you to seek out a diagnosis?

"A tingling in my fingers and my toes," says Shepherd. "Always tingling and always having to go to the bathroom."

But it wasn't just those physical manifestations. "I was completely foggy, feeling, like, lethargic, being very irritable and just moody," she says. "That's what I was going through when I had diabetes and I didn't know. I was just terrified."

When she was eventually diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007, Shepherd still lacked the knowledge of how to manage the symptoms.

"I thought I could just eat sugar-free candy," she says. "I was like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a whole section with sugar-free candy!’ I did not realize that, no, you can't. You gotta moderate what you eat."

Shepherd also struggled with monitoring her blood-sugar level, which she did with a finger-prick method, which involves drawing a drop of blood and testing it in a glucose meter.

"I was pricking my finger too hard. And somebody was telling me that I didn't need to prick it that hard and telling me to tilt it this way so that I'm able to get an accurate reading. People just started coming forth and sharing things with me and making me aware of certain things," she says. But then she was introduced to continuous glucose monitoring.

3. How has using a continuous glucose monitoring device benefited you?

"I hated carrying around that stuff that I needed to prick my finger. It looks like a drug paraphernalia kit with needles and control solution," she says.

Now, she uses the FreeStyle Libre sensor from Abbott and has teamed up with the brand to talk about it.

"It's this little tiny monitor that I can read from my cellphone, and it will let me know if my glucose level goes up and I've eaten too much, or if it's low, which means, 'Hey, girl, hey, you gotta eat.'" she says.

The system, according to Abbott, is the "most cost-efficient" of the available continuous glucose monitors (which range, according to reviews, from about $100 to $300 a month, plus one-time fees of about $60 to $80, depending on brand and insurance coverage). Shepherd says awareness of products like these can make all the difference to people after learning of their diagnosis.

"You get this diagnosis, or a diagnosis of pre-diabetes, and you're at this crossroad where you have to decide which way you're going to go. For me, it was a crossroad of, 'Sherri, you can look at this as if now your life is going downhill. You're going to be like your mom and your aunt and other people in your family, which ultimately ends up in death.' Or you can look at it like, 'you have a son, and you want to be there for him. And how can you have this diagnosis and live with it, but live a really amazing life?'" she explains. "I'm passionate about making people aware that there is something that literally is lifechanging. It’s affordable, it's accessible."

She continues: "So many people are walking around in this fog, going, 'I don't know what I'm going to do.' And it's just like, I want you to be aware there's something that you can do. I had to learn it on my own. But there's people who can help you. There's technology that can help you live a full life."

What experts say

What is diabetes? How are type 1 and type 2 different?

"When you have diabetes, your blood glucose levels, also called blood sugar, rise higher than normal. Your body does not make enough insulin," a hormone that helps your body turn food into energy and controls blood-sugar levels, Dr. Robert Gabbay, chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetes Association, tells Yahoo Life. It could also mean your body cannot use the insulin it does make — or that there's a combination of not making enough and not using it well.

"There are three common types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, your immune system mistakenly destroys the beta cells in your pancreas that make insulin. In type 2 diabetes, your body does not make enough insulin or does not use the insulin it does make properly. This is the most common type of diabetes," Gabbay explains.

What is the difference in diagnosing the two?

"Generally, type 1 diabetes is diagnosed in childhood, and that's an autoimmune disorder, so there's really nothing that you can do to cause type 1 diabetes. It does tend to run in families, but any autoimmune disorder can happen to anyone at any time. So that is not related to dietary intake or obesity — something triggers the body's immune system to start attacking the pancreas, which stops making insulin," Sarah Gossett, a nurse practitioner at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, Wis., tells Yahoo Life.

"Type 2 diabetes can be diagnosed at any time. There are certain things that can make people more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, like if someone has a family history, a history of gestational diabetes or polycystic ovary syndrome, they are more predisposed," she says. "It's often considered more of an adult disease, but there is a rise in diagnoses of type 2 diabetes in childhood, which goes along with the rise of obesity in childhood."

What are symptoms of type 2 diabetes, specifically?

"Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include urinating often, feeling very thirsty, feeling very hungry (even though you are eating), extreme fatigue, blurry vision, cuts or bruises that are slow to heal, weight loss, tingling, pain or numbness in the hands/feet and increased fungal infections like athlete's foot and yeast infections in women," says Gabbay. "Most people with type 2 diabetes, however, do not have any symptoms until their blood glucose levels get fairly high."

In Shepherd's case, the tingling of her extremities was likely the result of nerve damage caused by the undiagnosed diabetes, called neuropathy, according to Gossett. It's considered less of a symptom than it is a complication of the disease going untreated. "The risk of developing these complications is significantly decreased when blood sugars are kept under good control over the person's lifetime. ... If you're diagnosed with diabetes at age 25, you're gonna have a lot more time to develop complications than someone who is diagnosed at 65."

How can these complications be managed?

First and foremost, by visiting a primary care doctor, says Gabbay.

"People with type 1 diabetes are more likely to be managed by a specialist, an endocrinologist. But all people with diabetes can benefit from meeting with a diabetes care and education specialist who can help them learn more about diabetes and problem-solve to live a healthier life," he says. "Working toward a healthy weight through diet and exercise is important for all types of diabetes, as losing weight helps the body’s insulin be more effective and helps to lower blood glucose levels. Medications are often needed as well."

How might a continuous glucose monitoring system help?

"It provides fantastic feedback about how the things you're eating and how your exercise affects your blood sugars," says Gossett. "You can watch what's happening in real time."

Gabbay adds: "In many ways, it has been a game changer. The availability of continuous glucose monitors allows someone to know when their glucose levels are in a healthy range and when they are not. This can help people make lifestyle choices as well as guiding use of medications with the help of their healthcare professional."