When mother-of-two Kim Henshaw was eight, her life was changed forever. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, an auto-immune condition where the body wrongly destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. A disease for which there is no known cause or cure.
Thirty years on, and with two healthy children and a husband in tow, the Victorian reflects on her life post-diagnosis.
“It’s relentless. There’s no real break from it,” Kim tells Mamamia. “It feels there aren’t any real changes on the horizon… I don’t even remember my life without diabetes, this is just the way it is now.”
It's believed 1.7 million Australians have diabetes, of which 10 per cent suffer with Type 1, also known as juvenile diabetes.
Sufferers face the precarious task of balancing their blood glucose levels at all times. A sudden dip or spike can result in extreme lethargy, blurred vision, dizziness, headaches, mood swings, and muscle cramping. A compromised immune system commonly sees Type 1 diabetes sufferers battle persistent skin infections and drastic weight changes.
While the exact cause is unknown, research shows there is a strong hereditary link, meaning parents often pass diabetes onto their children.
It's this fact that plagues Kim, who fears she has inadvertently given her disease to daughter Aspen, 11, and son Jarrah, 5, who are both currently healthy. The anticipation is so intense, Kim describes it as "a constant underlying feeling of guilt".
"I always have a background worry that one day [Aspen and Jarrah] will get diabetes too," Kim says.
"I have an underlying feeling of guilt, that if they get it, there’s a strong chance they’ve gotten it from me. It’s always on my mind, it’s always in the background.”
Her children and husband Paul have been instrumental in helping Kim, who now works as the Families Program Coordinator at Diabetes Victoria, live a normal life.
“I have to make sure I’m healthy and functioning well for my kids," Kim says. "Both Paul and the kids help me monitor my blood sugar levels. They’ll grab the jar of jellybeans from the cupboard and they’ll tell me when I need to have some."
But managing her diabetes can only do so much. Recently, Kim and Paul had to face a tough reality - they wouldn't be able to have any more kids, despite their earlier plans to have a large family.
"The management required during pregnancy is just so difficult. I had three miscarriages in between my two kids, and while I've been assured they weren’t related to my diabetes, it meant that five times I concentrated so hard on my health, but only passed the test twice. It was really hard."
In fact, the 38-year-old's pregnancies were almost defined by her diabetes.
"I was doing 20 finger pricks a day to make sure my blood sugar was in a reasonable range," Kim - who sounds tired just thinking about that time in her life - tells me. "I wanted to eliminate the risk of exposing my unborn baby to an irregular blood sugar levels, so it was continual.
“During Aspen's labour and delivery I’d do a finger prick every 15 minutes. No matter what position, or stage, Paul would organise to do a finger prick every 15. It was the same with Jarrah.”
The Melbourne mum says eating well and maintaining a healthy weight are crucial components of diabetes management. Because of this, she eats a diet consisting of low carb, healthy fat foods.
As for anyone who has recently learned they have Type 1 diabetes, Kim has some helpful advice:
“Everything will be fine, and life will go on, it’s just your new normal. You can feel angry for a while, but then make sure you have a lot of good people around you. Reach out to organisations for education and support, and find some peers that have the same journey as you."
To do exactly that, Diabetes Victoria is holding an expo on Saturday, the 25th of February, that seeks to connect members of the diabetes community.
The expo will feature a range of high-profile speakers, and seek to help sufferers and their loved ones deal with all types of the disease.
The Diabetes Victoria Expo is free for Diabetes Victoria members. For more information, call 1300 136 588 to register, or visit this website.