DNA, Diabetes And Family Destiny
Diabetes runs is Kristen Cabrera’s family. Her dad, plus seven aunts and uncles have the illness. She drove home to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and gathered them together to talk about it.
Ever since I can remember my father has had diabetes. Pricking his finger, checking his blood sugar is part of his morning routine.
I was raised in the Rio Grande Valley – about five hours south of Austin. It’s an area on the Texas-Mexico border that is almost 90 percent Hispanic.
All seven of my dad’s sisters and brothers were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. I met with four of them.
Macario Cabrera Jr. was diagnosed in 1992. Blanca Cabrera was diagnosed in 1999. Arty Cabrera was diagnosed in 2000. Adam Cabrera was diagnosed in 1996.
And my father: “My name is Aaron Lee Cabrera and I’m the oldest. I’m 61. I was diagnosed with diabetes in 1996,” he says.
The other siblings are Tio Edgar – he’s had diabetes for 18 years. My Tia Yvette had diabetes for 10 years. But back in 2014, she got weight loss surgery and now she doesn’t have diabetes. Carrying extra weight or being obese are big risks.
Tio Eliud, the baby brother of the bunch, was diagnosed in 2002 and lived with it for five years before he died of colon cancer.
Honestly, no one in my family knew about the connections between colon cancer and diabetes. But one study found that patients with diabetes and colon cancer live about about five years less than people who have colon cancer, but no diabetes.
“And it’s funny listening to all my brothers and sisters because it’s like we all got diagnosed around the same time,” my dad says.
The American Diabetes Association recommends most people get screened around age 45. In my family, people typically get diagnosed around age 37.
Being Hispanic is a risk factor for diabetes. But being of Mexican descent, like we are, is an even higher risk. That’s not the only pattern that I noticed.
“My blood vessels – I was bleeding in the back of the eye in other words,” Junior says.
“I also have bleeding in my eye.” Blanca says.
My dad: “Now I’ve got also diabetic retinopathy. It’s like when your blood vessels are bursting in the back of your eyeball.”
It’s a scary thing to know your father is bleeding in his eyes.
As a family, we are all pretty used to dealing with the many complications that come with diabetes. But we really weren't prepared when my grandmother’s health started spiraling after one small cut.
“She had a fall and cut her toe,” dad says. “And we didn’t know she cut her toe when she fell.”
The wound got worse and worse. It began to sink in for my dad and the rest of family. The daily drop-ins wouldn’t be enough to take care of her anymore. She’s going to need 24-hour care in a nursing home.
One week she fell three times.
“And we had to call EMS because we could not lift her up, she was so heavy,” dad says. “She was pretty close to 300 pound. And her doctor came in and they decided they’re going to really need to amputate some toes. So after a week, maybe two weeks, they saw that her gangreen had not stopped and so they figured they had removed her left leg up to her knee and that’s what happen, eventually.”
“That is the scariest thing to see,” says Blanca. “I work at the hospital and I had to ask the doctors ‘Do not let me see mom’s foot’... ugh it just, it scares the crap out of me.”
“Us observing mom and the things she went through,” dad says. “We all know that we don’t want to go down that path. As we saw how mom suffered and that’s agonizing.”
Adam wonders why my grandmother went through such an ordeal. She had help with her insulin, but she wasn’t very active.
“But see, years before she used to walk,” Blanca says. “I don’t know what happened. One day she just stopped.”
“Mom went down hill really after Eliud died,” Aaron says.
“Ándale, that’s just what I was about to say,” Junior says.
“She didn’t care after that,” Aaron says.
Ultimately my grandmother’s complications lead to heart failure. She died in January 2016. Her death affected all of us.
I wonder if her passing has been a warning to my aunts and uncles: Take control of your diabetes.
“Seeing what mom and dad were going through, it was hard,” Blanca says. “And it was very depressing I guess. And I guess because of that I wasn’t taking care of myself. So now that mom and dad are gone and they’re in a much better place, now I have to focus on me.”
“We’ve even talked about it,” Aaron says. “For me personally and what I heard from my brothers, we’re just exhausted. We’re so tired. I wish I had more energy.”
I’m hoping our family talk helped everyone connect the dots a bit.
Caring for yourself, your body your emotions – it all matters when you are trying to live well with diabetes.
I definitely see some of our family patterns in me – like years of morning breakfast tacos might be looming over me.
I’m overweight. I’m heading into my 30s. I don’t ever really exercise.
But I don’t want my DNA to control my destiny.