Cancer and Diabetes Made Me a ‘Master of Chronic Disorders’

After decades of dealing with type 1 diabetes, I was taking care of my ailing parents when I received a breast cancer diagnosis.

By: Carmon Hicks

My world wraps two health challenges together: type 1 diabetes and metastatic breast cancer.

In 1969, at age 13, I was diagnosed with diabetes, and I was scared. Every doctor told me that my condition was genetic, but my parents and three older sisters showed no signs. I questioned whether I was adopted. My adolescent research on dominant and recessive genes helped me understand the genetic process and eased my suspicions.

I journeyed through high school and college with a routine of scheduled, healthy meals, campus walks and no all-night study sessions that could interfere with my sugar levels. There were no continuous glucose monitors (CGMs), but I was confident and independent with few hospital emergencies. During my young adult life, my endocrinologists included me in their research. It was fun to spend the night in the hospital as they experimented with ways to manage blood sugar levels at 2 am.

In the late 1990s, I got my first mammogram, because all the research said I should. They became routine annual visits — just one more medical appointment. Then, around 2000, my husband, George, and I relocated to spend time with my aging parents.

My mammogram in 2005 showed a small dot and a biopsy followed. I was worried, but faced other issues. Around Thanksgiving of the same year, my mom fell when her hip broke. Then, near Christmas, while visiting my dad in the hospital, I got the news: the spot we saw was stage 1 breast cancer.

My heart and mind went crazy.

In January 2006, I broke my ankle, and while on crutches, I underwent a lumpectomy surgery that allowed the cancer cells to remain in the margins. Two months later, I got a mastectomy.

By the end of 2006, breast reconstruction began. For me, this painful process felt like “straw scraping across brick.” Then, my oncologist had to decipher my next steps. No chemotherapy and no radiation since they could complicate my 35-plus years of diabetes. A daily pill was prescribed for the next six years.

During that time, my parents continued to decline. Balancing my parents’ needs with the uncertainty of my own health created inconsistent sugar levels.

After my mom’s death, we moved in with my dad during his final days, but cancer is never far away. About a year later, the disease returned to my bones. Now with metastatic breast cancer, my journey is chronic like it is with diabetes. In a peculiar way, diabetes seems more difficult with constant diet, exercise, CGM and insulin monitoring.

For the past decade or so, a complementary therapy for my duo-diagnoses is weekly gentle chair yoga on Zoom. I treat yoga like a medical appointment. It helps stabilize my sugar levels, calms my mental state and keep me healthy.

Perhaps my adolescent diabetes regiment prepared me for my cancer journey. Scans, procedures, treatments, medical visits, emails and telehealth conversations are a way of life. Healthy meals, regular exercise, mental activities, hobbies and good rest keep me balanced. Sure, there are days of doubt and worry, but I conquer those moments with prayers of thankfulness.

For me, it’s been nearly 54 years of diabetes and 16 years of cancer. Mending the two together can be challenging but manageable. My oncologist jokingly says that I’m the “master of chronic disorders.”

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