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I facilitated an event for Ascensia (disclosures at the end of this piece) last night/early morning and the crappy time was partly (mostly) my fault, because although I sacrificed the Aussies and suggested we draw the short straw in the time zone lottery, I forgot that daily saving would have kicked in for us meaning kick off time was 11pm and not 10pm. That may not seem much – I mean, what’s an hour? – but there is definitely a psychological barrier about doing work after midnight. (Anyway, I digress, and that paragraph has just about put me to sleep). 

The reason for last night’s adventures after dark was a facilitating gig for Ascensia’s latest Diabetes Social Media Summit (DSMS). The thing I love about (and why I am so keen to be involved) in these Summits is because they have tacked some difficult topics that are often hidden away. 

This one was no different in that we looked to address something that needs more attention – diabetes and women’s health. In my introduction, I wanted to make the point that diversity and inclusion is important when speaking about any aspect of diabetes, and that for us to be truly inclusive in a discussion about women and diabetes, we needed to hear from women who represent all corners of the diabetes world. I particularly referred to needing better representation from women in the LGBTQIA+ community. 

The other thing that we had wanted to make sure that we didn’t focus too much on diabetes and pregnancy, because so often that is the only easily information about women’s health and diabetes that can be easily found (and saying that, there does seem to be a bias towards women with type 1 diabetes). Of course, understanding and being aware of how diabetes can impact on pregnancy is important, but it is certainly not the only issue that women with diabetes want or need to know about. 

In fact, one of the discussion points was that for some women, pregnancy is not a topic they want discussed. There is the assumption that all women of childbearing age need information about having a healthy baby when that is not the truth. Contraception discussions do not necessarily equal an invitation for pre-pregnancy counselling, and there needs to be some sensitivity in how healthcare professionals in particular raise the topic, and rid themselves of the belief that all women want to have kids.   

There is so much more to talk about. So, so much more. 

We touched on how much our cycles can impact and influence glucose levels (and a very amusing tangent where we joked about how when we see monthly perfect glucose patterns, they clearly don’t belong to people who menstruate – or people who understand the absolute havoc hormones can wreak on CGM traces).

We spoke about birth control and how the OCP can also make a significant difference to glucose levels, yet many of us were not told about that. 

Of course, we spoke of menopause, but only briefly; briefly not because it’s not an important topic (or a super relevant topic), but because we just got caught up talking about other things (and perhaps my facilitating skills weren’t as tight as usual).

And we spoke about how cultural gender issues need to be shown and understood so that the experience of privileged white women with diabetes are not seen as the only experiences. 

For me, the central message that I heard time and time and time again was that topics about the very things that occupy a lot of the headspace of women with diabetes are simply not discussed with us. And there is little research to inform our decision making, or even to help us form the right questions to ask. At best, we are given some piss-weak explanation that points a finger at diabetes being to blame. At worst, we are dismissed. 

I do wonder when research and diabetes education will catch up. I know that there are some wonderful researchers doing some important work here, but we are so far from normalising discussions about women’s health and diabetes as part of our typical healthcare routines. We’re miles away from getting rid of the preconceived and outdated ideas about women’s sexual health. 

Beyond discussing different women’s health matters, we also spoke about just how these discussions fit in the diabetes community. This was a completely unplanned turn for the summit (it was not a topic on the agenda), but I’m glad we had it and I’m glad that I am writing about it. Because of the nature of women’s health, sex and diabetes, there is a lot of taboo, shame, fear, and vulnerability. I know that some of the rawest and most open I’ve been in my writing has been when I have been dealing with moments in my life that were so, so hard and I was so, so vulnerable. When I look back, I sometimes wonder if I was right to hit publish after writing, and perhaps I should have tucked away the paragraphs until I was feeling stronger. Or not published at all. While I have been told that my words have provided some comfort to others facing similar challenges, it left my gaping, open wounds very public and visible. 

After writing about miscarriages, I’ve been called selfish for wanting to have a child and potentially passing on diabetes to them. Writing about my fears of passing on diabetes to my child I’ve been told that perhaps I should have thought of that before I got pregnant. Speaking about body image concerns, I’ve been told to toughen up and stop being so shallow. I’ve seen and watched other women with diabetes experience the same thing, and I feel their pain as I watch them navigate the muddy, and sometimes distressing waters. 

We spoke about how women are treated in the diabetes community, particularly when we write about struggles and difficulties, and the words and terms that are thrown our way when we dare to share how we are feeling. The ‘angry woman’ trope that I’ve written about before has been directed to many others too. 

These discussions are real, and they are necessary. I am one of the loudest, most vocal supporters of peer support and have spoken about the value and importance of diabetes peer support and the online community on stages literally around the globe. Peer support saved me at times when I thought I was broken beyond repair. But it also can be a source of pain and bullying and nasty confrontations, and perhaps we need to have those discussions too so that when someone decides that they are ready to share and be especially vulnerable that they look out for themselves as much as looking out for the community. It’s all very well to want to share to connect and help with our own and others’ isolation but leaving ourselves exposed isn’t easy. 

One of the attendees last night reminded us that we could share with selected friends in the community, still allowing for that peer support but under the protection of a safe space. It’s interesting, because until maybe two years ago, I had never experienced how unsafe the community can be to individuals. I’d not felt that before. While I still share a lot, these days  I’m more inclined to turn to those trusted friends in the DOC who I know will be honest, open, but never nasty or judgemental. 

Online spaces are different for women than they are for men. The misogyny that is inbuilt to even those that we think are allies comes out, often surprising us, as throwaway comments about a woman’s age or appearance. It is ever present in the diabetes community too. I’ve rolled my eyes as some of the most vocal advocates who have loudly aligned themselves as being supporters of women, revert to type, with snide sexist commentary. I’ve seen people in the DOC referred to as ‘angry old women’ for daring to be furious, older than 25 and a woman! I roll my eyes now when I know someone has called me angry. I also know that they’ve just announced to everyone how threatened they are of women who dare to not go quietly, and how they expect us to remain in our place!

There was so much more that we could have spoken about last night. We didn’t touch on body image and disordered eating (and yes, I know that this is not the domain of women only, but this is about us!), we didn’t talk about sex all that much either, even though it is often highlighted as an issue that needs more coverage and information. Again, it’s not because they are not important topics; it was because the fluid conversation took a feminist turn that highlighted a highly biased social and healthcare environment where it is seen as perfectly fine that the needs, and concerns of fifty percent of the diabetes community are barely considered.

Perhaps if we had a more feminist approach to, and model of, healthcare, the misogyny that has meant the topics important to us have not been researched, and are not discussed, could be eliminated. And women with diabetes would not be feeling ignored.

Disclosure

I was invited by Ascensia to help plan the agenda for #DSMSWomen and facilitate the discussion. I have been paid an honorarium for my time. 

People with diabetes know that many times when we have a health concern it is dismissed with phrases such as ‘Oh, that’s more common in people with diabetes’ or ‘It’s part of living with diabetes’. Sometimes, that may be the case, but other times, it absolutely is not, and playing the diabetes card is like a get out of jail free card for HCPs to not do the investigations that they should to confirm diabetes is indeed responsible, and to eliminate anything else. Our concerns are ignored, and sometimes not believed. Not being believed is distressing in a particular way. 

It is fair to say that while diabetes has the ability to creep its way into all sorts of places it doesn’t belong, it is also fair to say that sometimes it’s not diabetes. 

I’ll say that again for the people in the back: SOMETIMES IT’S NOT DIABETES! 

Women – with and without diabetes – have also reported, (and reported and reported) stories of not being believed, or listened to, or properly treated by healthcare professionals when we’ve fronted up to visit the GP or other health professional to discuss something worrying us. Women with painful, heavy, uncomfortable periods are told that it’s just part of being a woman. A diagnosis of endometriosis is not treated as something especially serious because it is common, and we’re told it’s just part and parcel of life for some women. And women going through menopause and perimenopause, are told just to accept it, that it will pass… and it’s just part of being a woman.  

Put diabetes and women’s health together and there is a lot of dismissing, ignoring, diminishing, patronising, and belittling. 

It needs to stop, and we need to be believed. 

I am lucky that I haven’t experienced painful periods. To be honest, I barely even thought about periods until I was ready to try to get pregnant when I realised that my (up until then) good luck of only having a period 3 or 4 times a year wasn’t ideal for someone who needed to know when ovulation was occurring, and, to optimise the change of getting pregnancy, was occurring monthly. When I mentioned my irregular periods, the first thing I heard from most HCPs said was that it was because of diabetes. I wasn’t buying it. I’d started menstruating when I was thirteen. I had eleven years of sketchy periods before I was diagnosed with diabetes. And so, I asked for a referral to an OB/GYN and found one who was the sort of doctor who likes to solve puzzles rather than just ignore them.

He did a laparoscopy, a heap of other tests, and announced that I had PCOS. Not once did he suggest that my diabetes was to blame, but so, so many other HCPs did draw a line between the two. I do understand that there are links between type 2 diabetes and PCOS, and there is some research to suggest that there is a link between type 1 diabetes and PCOS, but thanks to an OB/GYN who wasn’t into making assumptions, I knew that there was more at play. 

When I was ready to conceive, a regular cycle was easily achieved with a bit of Clomid. Since I had my daughter, my periods have been like clockwork. The arrive with a tiny bit of cramping that barely registers, and me being annoyed that I need to think about if I have what I need in the bathroom cupboard/work drawer/handbag. But not much else. 

But I have friends who have such painful, uncomfortable, debilitating periods that have a really negative affect on their health and wellbeing each and every month. I know of people who miss days of school or work each cycle, who vomit at their period’s onset, and who cry in pain for days each and every month. These friends tell stories of how many HCPs simply shrugged their shoulders and said it was something they just needed to deal with, and perhaps some ibuprofen might help. They tell me that the severity of the pain is not believed. They are made to feel that bleeding through layers of pads, tampons and clothes shouldn’t concern them. 

When I have needed to push and push and push to get answers, or to be treated seriously in the first place, or to reject the ‘It’s diabetes’ reasoning, I have been labelled difficult or challenging. When refusing to accept the ‘It’s just a woman thing’, I’ve felt the same way. 

Dr Jen Gunter says it shouldn’t be an act of feminism to understand how our bodies work. In exactly the same way it shouldn’t be an act of defiance to demand answers. It also shouldn’t be an act of resilience. All too often, it is all these things. 

Artwork from diabetes advocate & artist, Jenna. Find this & other amazing artworks on her Instagram page: @TypeOneVibes.
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