With the diabetes epidemic approaching 20 per cent of the Cree population,Diabetes Awareness Month has taken on new meaning as almost no one in the communities can say that their lives remain untouched by the disease. In light of this, four Eeyou women who are living with the disease have consented to share their stories with Amy German so that others may increase their knowledge and possibly draw strength from their experiences.

Kathleen Benac, Mistissini

Benac was first diagnosed with diabetes in 1992. At first, there was much confusion as she tried to understand the disease. “I felt angry and I tried to blame people, especially when I found out that there were members in my family that had it, like my mother. I used to say to myself, ‘Why did it have to be me?

Fifteen years later things are different. Having lived with it for so long she now understands much more about the disease. But it was not time that made the difference, it was communicating with others that changed her outlook.

“The more I talk about it, or hear other people talk about it, that’s when I decide to really take care of myself.”

Nonetheless, she still struggles. Having diabetes is simply not easy, especially for someone like Benac who freely admits to taking great joy in food.

“Food is really good,” she said with a giggle. But Benac acknowledges the necessity of following doctor’s orders as the consequences of not doing so are grave. “I get scared sometimes when I see others who are really, really over their border. Your feet and your hands, everything you have to watch. It’s hard, very hard!”

Today Benac is healthy, goes for regular checkups and beams with pride when her doctor tells her that she is in good shape.

Benac also acknowledges the necessity of downtime and how occasionally removing herself from the rigors and the stress of the working world can be one of the best therapies. “I try and take time to go in the bush as there is something out there. My blood sugar goes down and my stress goes down, because in the bush you’re not on a timetable.”

It is not just about following the medical advice she has been given, however. Having goals and people to live for adds deeper meaning to taking care of herself. “I have seven grandchildren and I’d like to see them all grow up and be in good health. This is what I look forward to, my grandchildren and my children.”

Though her family helps keep her going, Benac struggled with them when she was initially diagnosed. Looking back, she realizes they always had her best interests at heart. “I remember when I was first told not to eat this and that, and my kids would tell me, ‘Mom, you’re not supposed to eat that!’ I got angry and I said to myself, ‘I’m already marked for death!”’But Benac got over it. “Sometimes we get angry if other people tell us to take their advice. But they do care. People care, especially the people we love. They want to be there for us. Sometimes we get angry and push people away. But we have to stay together.”

Kathleen Benac’s message to the community is, “Give diabetics your full support. Tell them they are not alone and that there are people who care for them. I think it’s very important that we stand together and we help these people.”

Florence Cheezo, Eastmain

For Florence Cheezo, diabetes is a family affair as her father, sister and husband all suffer from it and she herself is borderline diabetic (pre-diabetes).

“When I first found out that I was borderline diabetic, I guess I was a little worried. I had heard of what people who have diabetes go through. I thought about my life and how my health would be in the future.”

At the time of her diagnosis, she met with a health worker to find out how to live with her condition, what she could eat and expect for the future. But for Cheezo it was what she learned from the TV and radio that drove the message home. “I heard stories on the radio and the television about the effects of diabetes and I saw how some people lived with it, some were amputated and such. It wasn’t long ago that I heard your eyes could be affected too.”

Cheezo’s frame of reference for diabetes came from witnessing what her father and sister had to go through. “My dad had diabetes, I often saw my father using the syringe. He had to eat food that wasn’t greasy, like a pork chop that was boiled not fried. I used to see my sister cook like that. Almost everything had to be boiled. My sister has it too but she uses medicine. The same goes for my husband, he uses medicine.”

With so many suffering from the disease in her immediate vicinity and her own diagnosis, Cheezo felt inclined to change her habits. “I try to watch what I eat now. I quit sugar already with my coffee and tea; I don’t use it anymore. I read about how to help myself, I try and I walk when I can and try to walk to work.”

Cheezo even makes an effort to get exercise when she is away in Montreal for medical appointments. She makes the steep climb up to the Royal Victoria Hospital on foot instead of using public transit.

“I will take care of myself, I will be aware of my life,” she vowed. At the same time she committed herself to living better for the sake of her family. She was blessed with the recent arrival of a grandchild who she wants to see grow up.

“My family are also supporting me and reminding me of what to eat. They help me a lot, they remind me often and encourage me and I like that they do that for me. It lets me know that they care about me and they really love me. They want me to have a good healthy life for the future.”

Florence Cheezo’s message: “If you’re told you’re almost diabetic [pre-diabetic], you can overcome it. You can take care of yourself and watch what you eat and drink, especially the sweet things. You can quit that and take care of yourself in everything you do.”

Margaret Cheezo, Eastmain

When she was initially diagnosed in 1996, Margaret Cheezo was not prescribed medication but was instead simply asked to follow a diet. In 1998 she was put on prescription pills and then eventually in 2002 she began an insulin injection regime.

“I use two kinds now,” said Cheezo. “So I inject myself two times a day.”

Her biggest struggle has been maintaining her diet. Sometimes she cannot partake of dinner if she hadn’t prepared it herself according to the meal plan she is supposed to follow.

When she goes about her daily routine in the community, she does not get the opportunity to walk very much as she has other priorities such as working 9 to 5 at Youth Protection. She also has two very active children she must be home for. Racing from work to home, and simply keeping up with mundane things like the laundry, has unfortunately limited what time she has for exercise and even fresh air. The impact on her health is immediate.

Cheezo has however discovered something very interesting about her condition: a back-to-basics approach has helped her significantly. “My sugar used to be really high but a few weeks ago, itstarted going down,” she explained. “We were in the bush two weeks this past month and I saw it go down.”

Cheezo said she now knows why her sugar goes up and why it goes down. “When we’re in the bush my sugar goes down. When I’m here in the community, it goes up. When I eat store bought food it goes up. Even if I drink diet soda and apple juice, it goes up. When I have spaghetti, it goes up. Chicken, it also goes up.”

Reverting to a traditional Cree diet is what has really helped bring Cheezo’s blood sugar down, while significantly improving her health and energy levels.

“It helps me when I eat mostly traditional food with tea and water. I’m trying to cut down my pop and apple juice. I know my sugar goes up when I drink that stuff. I’m cutting down on sweets now, so it goes down a little.”

Buying as little from the grocery store as possible and opting for traditional food has done a world of good for Cheezo. “I eat more traditional food in the fall and the summer,” she observed. “We eat a lot of goose in the summer. I’m busier now and even when I pluck a goose I don’t feel as tired.”

Margaret Cheezo’s message? “From my own experience, being in the bush and eating traditional food is great. I don’t lie down during the day when I’m in the bush. I do what I have to do out there and we walk around looking for partridges and ptarmigans. When I’m out there I think it’s better for me. It’s better for people. There’s no TV to watch. We don’t bring stuff that’ll distract us and make us just sit around. We are busier in the bush.”

Emma Saganash, Waskaganish (living in Montreal)

For CBC North journalist Emma Saganash, her diabetes diagnosis was almost one of irony. Saganash recounted how, some years ago, she went to Waskaganish to do a story on diabetes and for the story they needed someone to take a blood test. Not being able to locate anyone who wanted to take the blood test, she took it herself.

“The test came back and the doctor was joking that I could eat as many pies as I want! Within a year, I was diagnosed with diabetes.

I was surprised because the doctor had told me that she had never seen blood sugar as low.”

Saganash was shocked and devastated by the diagnosis. But she was also very angry at herself as she had acquired so much information on the disease from reporting on it, and still wasn’t as cautious as she says she should have been.

“I should have been more careful, I should have known,” Saganash acknowledged. “So it was terrible news for me.”

When she was initially diagnosed, Saganash was prescribed medication to control her blood sugar, three pills per day. Over time she was able to reduce her medication, first down to two pills a day, then one and then she weaned off the medication completely because of other measures she implemented into her life. “It’s been over five years that I haven’t taken any medication,” said Saganash. “I’ve been able to control it by watching what I eat and walking.”

Living in the big city, Saganash has easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. However, it is still a struggle. “It’s something you have to think about every day, every time you put something in your mouth, wondering if there’s a lot of sugar in it.”

Since she has managed to get her diabetes under control, she has actually been able to incorporate a bit of sugar into her diet, giving her life more balance. “I have been able to learn how to eat.

Working at CBC North, I can eat regularly because I have a shift. I always try to eat at the same time. It’s more difficult for me when I travel, but when I’m at the office I’m able to eat at a certain time and eat regularly.”

Saganash used to look at what others ate and think about how, prior to her diagnosis, she ate better than those around her and yet she’s the one who is sick.

“I guess I have to deal with the fact that it has something to do with your genes, and the stress of work and everything. So now I’m looking at what I’m eating and trying to find ways to exercise, to go out and walk.” Laughing, she added, “I go shopping quite a bit!”

Fitness Challenge role model

I would like to congratulate my father Charlie Blackned from Nemaska on his previous accomplishments. My dad Charlie has competed in the Cree Nation Fitness Challenge the past three years and he is recognized as the oldest athlete to ever compete in the Fitness challenge. At the age of 63, Charlie has proven to people, young and old that you can accomplish any goal no matter how old you are, you just have put your mind to it. He received a plaque recognizing him as a role model by our local CHB in Nemaska. He still competes in Men’s Hockey in the NRHL with the young guns, his hockey skills have proven to be valuable and inspirational to all.

I feel really proud of my dad’s accomplishments; he inspires and motivates his sons. One of the reasons why I am writing this is my dad will soon be retiring from sports. This year might be his last year of competition in hockey or other sports, but I want to encourage him to keep it up and not to hang up the skates yet until he cannot skate anymore.

Emma Saganash wants her fellow Cree to know, “It’s not easy, it’s very difficult for a lot of people. I completely understand where they’re coming from,”

Listen to these and other stories in the Diabetes Journeys series on regional radio during the month of November.

Diabetes Journeys is a project of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. Thanks to Matthew Iserhoff, Pakesso Mukash and the Community Health Representatives for their valuable assistance.