Diabetes has always been a backdrop to Marisa Cardinal’s life. So many people in her family have had the condition—including her grandmother, father, brother and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins—she says it’s easier to count the number of relatives who haven’t had diabetes. Yet, despite this strong family history, she never thought diabetes would affect her. Until it did.
“I was very naive about diabetes,” Marisa admits. Even after she developed gestational diabetes during several of her pregnancies and was later diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, she continued to dismiss the potential risks to her health. “I felt fine, so I thought I must be fine.”
For many years, she took her diabetes medications only sporadically and rarely tested her blood sugar. As a busy mother of six young children, living and working part-time in Central Alberta while she completed two university degrees, she put physical activity on the back burner, and her weight climbed. “I was not being proactive in taking care of my body,” she says.
Then, just as she turned 40, her brother died of kidney failure related to diabetes at the age of 43. Marisa says,
Warren’s untimely passing was literally a wake-up call for me. My brother left behind a daughter; I have six kids, and my youngest was only two years old at the time. I knew I had to do everything possible to take care of myself so that I could see my kids grow up.
She started to educate herself about the impact of diabetes on the body and the benefits of physical activity. She took up running, an activity she had enjoyed when she was younger, and discovered she also really enjoyed lifting weights. As her fitness improved, so too did her weight, energy and blood sugar levels. She describes herself as now having a “solid routine” when it comes to consistently taking her medications, checking her blood sugar and staying up to date with all her routine tests like eye and foot exams. “Exercising has helped me so much physically, emotionally, spiritually,” she says. “I am stronger and in better shape in my 40s than I have ever been in my entire life.”
Wanting to share her passion for fitness as a means to manage her diabetes (along with nutrition and medication), Marisa became a certified personal trainer and fitness instructor, and has given presentations to the World Health Organization, universities, and numerous conferences and events such as Diabetes Canada’s Celebrating Women and Innovation in Diabetes. She is also a co-chair of the National Indigenous Diabetes Association. “I love it when people with diabetes tell me that they’ve started exercising because they’ve been inspired by me,” she says.
Marisa’s children also look to her example, and her younger teens now join her at the gym. “It’s good to see I am a role model for them.” At the same time, however, it’s difficult for Marisa to know her children may not be able to beat the odds when it comes to their risks for developing diabetes. The family is Cree, and Indigenous people not only face increased rates of type 2 diabetes, they also tend to be diagnosed with it at a younger age and have more severe symptoms. Babies born of mothers who had gestational diabetes may also be more likely to develop type 2 diabetes in adulthood.
One of Marisa’s younger family members, who has also been diagnosed with diabetes, asked her if she thought they would have to live with the condition forever. “I told her that research gives me hope. I have an unwavering belief that one day, thanks to research, we will live without medications and testing and complications.
“When that day comes, we will all be jumping up and celebrating.”
The last word
The increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes in Indigenous communities is the result of several overlapping and compounded factors, including Canada’s historic and continued colonial policies, such as residential schools, Indian hospitals and the ’60s scoop; lack of access to healthy, nutritious and affordable food; and a strong genetic risk for type 2 diabetes. Visit Indigenous Communities and Diabetes to learn more. September 30 marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which honours the children who never returned home from residential schools and Survivors of those schools, as well as their families and communities.
Did you know?
Diabetes Canada funds research projects that have the potential to unlock new insights and breakthroughs in the field of diabetes management, care and risk reduction.
“People who fund research give hope to those of us living with diabetes,” says Marisa Cardinal. “Your support of research has led to fantastic new technologies and treatments that have already made a noticeable difference in so many lives.” A special donation today will help Diabetes Canada researchers advance the next diabetes discovery. Donate now.
Image: Curtis Cameron Photography.
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