Nothing stops comedian, actress, and jazz musician Lea DeLaria — not even type 2 diabetes. We spoke to the Orange Is the New Black star about how her life has changed following her diagnosis and how she balances her diabetes journey and career in show business.
How has diabetes affected your life, both personally and professionally?
It has affected my life incredibly in both aspects. I’m in show business and have been my entire life, so I’m used to a certain lifestyle of partying, staying up late, hanging out, sleeping during the day — all that stuff. Once I was diagnosed with diabetes, I knew I had to make a change in my diet, my drinking habits, and my exercise regime. It really made a huge difference. But as a result, I lost 50 pounds, which is great for one’s health.
The funniest was when we were in the middle of Season 2 of Orange is the New Black and we had to do the scene where we jump into a lake. I had just been diagnosed with diabetes, so I was changing my lifestyle in terms of food intake, alcohol intake and exercise. I got called into the principal’s office and they said, “You know your name is Big Boo?” I said, “Look, it’s not like I’m trying to lose weight, I’m just trying to be healthy, I have diabetes,” and they said, “Okay well that makes a difference.” They ended up having to put a fat suit on me so that’s the funniest way diabetes has affected me professionally.
People out there who are shaming people with diabetes, please stop doing that.Lea DeLaria
How do you keep your diabetes under control?
Diet and exercise are really the biggest thing. I also really think before I automatically do something. If I go to a restaurant and everyone gets a cocktail before the meal, I think, “What am I going to have with my meal, am I going to have a cocktail?” and decide to just have a club soda with lime. Previously, it would have been automatic for me to order a drink before dinner when I’m out with friends. I also try to avoid situations where I know it’s not going to be good for me. I’m not going to go to a party where there’s going to be cake all around me and everyone’s going to be eating it — I’ll feel left out and end up eating it as well. I try to be careful with what I’m doing.
I’m an actor, a singer, and a stand-up comic — I need my eyes and I need my feet! More than anything else, I’m not about to have my career affected by my inability to cope with a disease that is quite easy to cope with once you put your mind to it.
Is there a part of your diabetes journey that has been particularly triumphant?
About two years ago, I got my A1C [a test depicting average level of blood sugar over the past two to three months] to 5.8 and I’ve hovered around 5.9 to 5.6 ever since. To me, that feels very triumphant. I have the blood sugar of a normal person and that means a lot to me. Taking care of my body, my health, my work, and my life — I feel like I’ve really gone for it and done well. It was a wake-up call for me to be told I was diabetic.
What do you want the public to know about diabetes?
In society, they shame people with diabetes and will say, “All you have to do is control your eating habits.” People end up having terrible misconceptions about the disease. People out there who are shaming people with diabetes, please stop doing that. We’re all doing the best we can with what we’re given and the cards that we’ve been dealt.
If you could give one message to Canadians living with diabetes, what would it be?
More than anything, I want to say: you can do this. You don’t have to lose a leg, you don’t have to lose an eye, you don’t have to lose your life. You can do this. You can be healthier and happier. It’s not as hard as you think — you’re stronger than the disease.