March 16, 2007

Caregiving: Delta Burke on Diabetes


Actress and diabetic Delta Burke, perhaps best known for her role as straight-talking Suzanne Sugarbaker on the TV show Designing Women (1986-1993), says now she wants to so some straight-talking on diabetes management.

By addressing diabetes head on, I'm in better control of my blood sugar, and I'm able to pursue my love of acting, said Burke, who recently appeared in ABC's Boston Legal.

Let's talk about proper eating, let's talk about ways to increase activity and let's talk about how medication can play an important role, she said.

The stage, screen and film actress -- and the wife of actor Gerald McRaney -- leads the Let's Talk campaign, which sheds light on the importance of managing diabetes. The campaign begins Saturday in Boston at the New England Spring Flower Show and continues to 10 U.S. cities throughout the summer. At most events, attendees will hear firsthand from Burke about her experience with type 2 diabetes.

About 10 years ago Burke was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at the same time she was a caregiver to her mother, who was being treated for breast cancer.

I was feeling funny the last couple of years (before the diagnosis) and I was going to doctors. They thought I might have something like Epstein-Barr (virus), Burke told UPI's Caregiving.

Finally, one doctor did some testing and diagnosed type 2 diabetes. Burke didn't need insulin, but she did need medication and was told to exercise and watch her diet.

Did Burke's caregiving and the stress of her mother's illness have anything to do with her diabetes?

Virginia Valentine, a certified diabetes educator who will be available to talk one-on-one with attendees at the Let's Talk campaign, says Burke's diabetes may have been hastened by her caregiver stress.

For many people who have a genetic predisposition to diabetes, stress (makes) it harder to manage a healthier lifestyle and may be a trigger. But it might have happened later as well, Valentine told Caregiving.

Millions of Americans with type 2 diabetes do not get diagnosed, especially without regular doctor visits, so it creeps up a little bit at the time, Valentine said.

Burke, whose only relative with diabetes was her father's mother, said she had always watched what she ate. In fact, sometimes she didn't eat at all.

In 1974, after high school, Burke won the Miss Florida title. When she became an actress, she says she was hypoglycemic, sometimes passing out, and at the time she didn't realize her excessively low blood sugar might have something to do with her spiking blood sugar later in life.

I wish I had had more information back then, Burke said. There was always so much pressure to be thin, I was size 6 and when I got to Hollywood I was told to lose weight. Sometimes I would not eat for seven days, but by the time I was in my 30s I couldn't do that kind of thing anymore.

In fact, Burke's devotion to dieting may have only added to her problem. There have been several studies that show that dieting is linked to greater weight gain over time among adolescents.

Burke's weight gain did not go unnoticed, but she received her first Emmy nomination for best actress in her role as Sugarbaker for the episode They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They? in which Burke's character attended her 15-year high school reunion and got her feelings hurt after hearing disparaging remarks about her weight.

At that time I took my medicine and paid attention to what I was eating -- I had given up things like sugar and white flour long ago -- but my blood sugar was still spiking, Burke said. My doctors said I needed to get a better hold on my blood sugar or I would end up on insulin. Then I got really strict with my diet and lost 20 pounds -- I only ate meat, vegetables and fruit.

However, Burke said she later still had blood sugar jumping all over the place.

In Los Angeles, a doctor mentioned a new kind of drug to Burke: incretin mimetics, which worked quickly to keep her blood sugar in a normal range.

Incretin mimetics are a new class of drugs that exhibit many of the same effects as the human incretin hormone glucagon, which improves blood sugar after food intake and works in concert on the stomach, liver, pancreas and brain.

This is a special, totally unique drug based on a natural hormone, which 20 years ago was unknown, Valentine said.

-- Alex Cukan is an award-winning journalist, but she has also been a caregiver since she was a teenager. UPI welcomes comments and questions about this column. E-mail: [email protected]