Most people don’t know the specifics of a chronic disease until it directly affects them or a loved one—and I was no different. When I was 16 years old, I was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes (T1D). But despite the whirlwind of information I was suddenly processing, I only had one real concern: How would diabetes would affect my dream of playing professional basketball?
Fortunately, my doctors assured me that as long as I stayed on top of it, all my goals were still achievable. I decided I didn’t want diabetes to define who I was or what I was capable of, so I pursued my passion: I led my high school team to the state championship game, played four years of college basketball on scholarship, and even got to travel the world as a pro (most famously as the first type-1 diabetic member of the Washington Generals).
It wasn’t easy: I even had to hide my diabetes from pro teams who could have used it as a reason not to sign me.
But I’d made up my mind that it wasn’t going to stop me—and it didn’t. After my days as an athlete were over, I founded Diabetics Doing Things, an online community and podcast that tells the stories of people living with T1D through long-form interviews. Our mission is to show people with diabetes what’s possible for their lives by introducing them to other amazing people who are living life to the fullest with T1D. We just celebrated our 100th podcast episode, and interviewing people from across the world has taught me lessons that help me face each day.
Here are three things I know to be true about living with T1D:
1. Exercise is key but doesn’t come without challenges.
It’s hard enough for people to make it to the gym without diabetes. You have to plan your entire day around your workout, wake up extra early or pack a bag for after work—not to mention turning down all of life’s little anti-workout distractions (goodbye, happy hour!). Now, imagine you did everything within your power to make it to the gym, but in the middle of your workout, your blood sugar drops. Or you get disconnected from your pump during your HIIT workout, and your blood sugar shoots super high. Those kinds of uncontrollable snags are a common occurrence when working out with T1D.
Until recently, I always disconnected my pump when I worked out because it was hard to keep it still while jumping or running around. But companies like Wolaco have developed top-notch performance shorts that also have pockets built into the compression, so I can securely stash my pump close to my body. Now I even play basketball with my pump on, so I can avoid as much of those highs and lows during a workout as possible—plus, I feel awesome when I score a bunch of points on someone who isn’t wearing a medical device. No handicaps here.
2. Celebrate the small wins.
This mantra should apply to every aspect of life, but it’s especially important for those living with chronic illness: Every day that you don’t end up in the hospital is a good day.
Chronic disease doesn’t just disappear, and there still isn’t a cure for T1D. We have to wake up and slay the diabetes dragon every single day, and there’s no parade for us afterward—and that can get heavy. But I’ve learned that you can celebrate the small wins, like managing your blood sugar, exercising, having a drink with friends, going for a long walk with your dog, or just making it to work on time. Remind yourself that you’re doing great. And build up a reserve of self-love, because you’ll need to tap into it when the going gets tough.
3. Find your tribe and hold on to them.
I spent my first 10 years with diabetes managing it completely on my own—and I was burned out on a consistent basis. I never knew how much I needed the support of the T1D community until I got over my pride, showed some vulnerability, and put myself out there. Asking to be a part of the T1D community has drastically changed my life for the better—the love and support I’ve gotten in return has been exponential, and I’d encourage everyone who is dealing with a challenge on their own to use their voice and be open about their struggle. As my dad used to say, “If you don’t A-S-K, you don’t G-E-T.”
This year, 40,000 people will be diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, and most of them will likely learn about it for the first time. They’ll wonder if the dreams they’ve had up to that point are still within reach, and I’m living proof that they are. I wouldn’t let it stop me from being the athlete I wanted to be, and it doesn’t have to stop you from chasing your dreams either.
Rob Howe is the founder of the online community and podcast Diabetics Doing Things. Check it out on Instagram.