Although what causes diabetes remains unknown, the condition occurs when the body lacks or improperly uses insulin, a hormone the body needs to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy.

Diabetes is categorized as two types: Type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes, is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. With this type of diabetes, the body does not produce insulin—a hormone that lowers the level of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood. Type 2 diabetes is the more common form and is usually diagnosed in older adults. In this type, either the body does not produce enough insulin or the body’s cells do not properly use the insulin that is produced.

How did you discover that you have type 2 diabetes?
I discovered it when I was on my way to an amusement park with my family. I had to keep stopping to urinate, and it was hard for me to go to the restroom. So, that was a red flag. By the time that I got to the amusement park, I had lost all of my electrolytes [minerals in the blood that help regulate various functions], which caused my legs to cramp up. I had to be taken in a wheelchair to the medics; they gave me Gatorade to replenish my electrolytes. That was the first time that I knew I needed to go get checked.

After that happened, did you immediately get checked or did time pass in between?
No, I went right away, and it was very devastating to me because I was young at the time. I was just launching my career as an artist, and it was just a hard place for me to be in because I wasn’t aware that I was a candidate [for diabetes]. I didn’t really think that I would get touched by this—I didn’t eat a lot of sweets or do any of the things that I thought would cause diabetes.

Does anyone in your family have diabetes?
At the time this happened, I can honestly say that I didn’t know anyone who had it. But my mom was recently diagnosed, and it seemed like everybody got diagnosed within two or three months of each other. It was a slew of us all of a sudden. Before then we weren’t aware of anyone in the family who had diabetes.

So your mom has it; who else in your family?
It was my mom, her sister; her sister’s daughter and myself—and then my aunt’s other daughter was just recently diagnosed. My aunt has now passed away.

Why do you think that you were so much in denial about the illness? And, in general, why do you think it still goes undiagnosed to such a great extent in the black community?

Because, like high blood pressure, even though there is a little bit of a noise about diabetes, it is a silent killer. So many people walk around for so long unaware they have it. For some people, it doesn’t register that they are urinating too much, especially if they are drinking water or beer or if they are a heavy drinker. You don’t translate that into possibly having diabetes. You’re thinking, “Oh, I drink a lot of beer, that’s why I go to the bathroom so much.” But, we also try to diagnose ourselves, and I think that’s a problem that we have.

What about the F.A.C.E. Diabetes campaign attracted you to become a spokesperson?

I just was an advocate and a firm believer that if God blesses you with a gift, like He’s done with me, and you have a platform, then you should use it to benefit others. When they called me to do it, I was elated because I had been trying to connect with something that would motivate or move my people.

In hindsight, do you remember if you noticed any symptoms that might have indicated there was any problem?
I didn’t because it came all of a sudden. I’ve never been a huge eater of sweets; in my mind, I thought that, yeah, you have to eat a lot of sugar [to get diabetes]. But my condition was not brought on by food; I was already overweight so it wasn’t because of sweets. A lot of people think [that because doctors] take you off sweets, that’s the thing that is causing it. [In reality] that’s the thing that is worsening it. A whole lot of food combining that has nothing to do with sweets causes diabetes.

As an entertainer, how difficult has it been for you to make lifestyle changes to better manage your diet and weight and to control this illness?
Initially, it was difficult because I, like everybody else, was in denial. But once you become accustomed to your body and the symptoms and what you need to do to maintain a healthy lifestyle, then it is pretty much a breeze. [Now], one of the least concerns is my diabetes, because I am in control.

In terms of food, how do you handle the cooking?
Basically, since I am in control, I eat healthy. Some of the things that I used to cook with—like margarine and butter, salt pork and different things that we grew up on—I’ve done away with those things. I’ve substituted things like smoked turkey, and I use less salt. I’ve used Pam as opposed to butter if I want to make an egg. It’s all in how you cook for yourself and how you respect your body and your health. This will govern you to change your lifestyle.

I would love to have everybody go to the website to see what we are doing. We are broadening that website so that as we find out more information, we add it. People can get information about nutrition, exercise and the disease on the website.

In terms of weight management, have you lost weight?
Yes, I have lost weight as a result of eating healthier. I think that I lost 40 pounds.

On a daily basis, what are some of the most significant challenges for you given your hectic schedule as a performer?
I think that the most challenging part is maintaining the consistency. The more that people find out through nutritional guiding what they can [and can’t] eat, the more okay they’ll be.

Are you on meds now?
I have been on meds. I don’t take shots; I take the pills. But diabetes affects everyone differently. My mother takes different medications than me; my cousin takes different medications than my mother and me—so everyone’s situation is slightly different. That is why people need to see a physician.

What do you say to encourage people in our community to get tested and get more involved with their health in general?
I would encourage them to get tested, mainly because if you are able to walk on your own two legs to get to a doctor’s office, you can prevent the worst thing that could possibly happen to diabetics: poor blood circulation that could cause amputations, and there is also loss of eyesight. I feel that if you are in a position where you are not sure [whether you have diabetes], then try to be sure; get all of the facts; see where you stand; start to treat the condition so that you can live a healthier life and leave here with what you came with.

In terms of exercise, what lifestyle adjustments have you made?
I walk a lot, and that helps my circulation. It keeps me moving so that I am not sitting around eating or drinking and not really working my heart. Everything that I need to stay healthy comes with the general exercise that I do, and it doesn’t take a lot.

You want to add anything?
I just want to let my sisters know that I love them, and to say, don’t be scared—you are not alone. We all can beat this thing together, one neighborhood at a time.