"We can be a little intimidating." That's how a member described Pancreatically Challenged, a Detroit-area support group for women with diabetes. I had visited the group in the Dearborn Heights, Mich., home of one of its members, Lisa Porter. "These very sweet, very cute, very friendly ladies? No way," I thought. They had offered me treats! They asked about my family! How could they be intimidating?
Then we started talking diabetes, and I got it. The members of Pancreatically Challenged are in charge of their diabetes. They're all using insulin pumps, checking their blood glucose levels regularly (about half use continuous glucose monitors), and vocal about the latest best practices in diabetes management.
"We're all very proactive in taking care of our diabetes. Not perfect, just proactive," says Janice Goffin, RN, CDE, 56, of Redford, Mich. Goffin is a nurse and certified diabetes educator and has type 1 diabetes.
"We've had a couple [of prospective members] who we lost because they didn't want to listen. They didn't want to face the pressure from us," adds Fran Seikaly, 66 and type 1 since age 37, of West Bloomfield, Mich. But she reassures new members that the pressure is a good thing: It's helped her be in control and avoid complications. The group's focus on healthful choices helped other members quit smoking.
Pancreatically Challenged formed in 1986, a spin-off from a hospital support group. Goffin and her fellow cofounder (who has since left) thought of starting a group specifically for women with type 1 diabetes. They had questions: How do you have a healthy pregnancy with diabetes? What type of insulin therapy is best for me? What's the latest in diabetes technology? And they were willing to bet that other women had the same questions—and maybe some answers.
Now, more than 25 years later, the by-invitation-only group's 12 or so core members have nearly 300 years of diabetes experience among them. And they're not shy about sharing it.
"We show where we're having trouble with our pump site," says Porter, 52. Other members mention talking each other through injecting insulin in public (even through leather pants, Seikaly says), handling complications, teaching family members to recognize (and react to) highs and lows, and much more. With their collective experience, they say that often they're more educated about diabetes than their doctors. "I'd go to the doctor's and they would always say, 'You know more about this than anyone else,' " says Denise Kurek, 61, of Dearborn Heights.
The group meets every six weeks or so, rotating among members' houses. They enjoy diabetes-friendly snacks together ("We don't eat garbage, but we make some good food," Porter says). Amy Cheff and Chris Yriart, members who coincidentally have both moved to South Carolina, call regularly to check in and attend the annual Pancreatically Challenged Christmas party.
The camaraderie that comes from being surrounded by women who understand living with diabetes is vital. "Otherwise, we're so very independent, but sometimes …" Porter begins, and Seikaly finishes for her, "You just want them to be there."
That support has carried them through marriages, divorces, births, deaths, kids leaving the nest, and more. "We've taken a lot of the fear out of diabetes," Porter says. Loretta Baker, 64, of Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., is the group's newest member, and the newest to diabetes (diagnosed at 41). She may seem like the quiet one in the group, but she describes herself as "a sponge," soaking in the group's collective knowledge. "It has made me more independent. Here, people really have good feedback. All these little nuggets come out."
The relationships built in the group sustain its members and remind them to practice self-care for themselves and their loved ones. "It's just simply support of other people going through the same thing," Goffin says. "In my professional life, I'm the one supporting others, but in this group, there's lots and lots of knowledge shared with others."
Kurek adds: "[For years] I didn't know anybody who had diabetes, and I didn't want to tell anyone, because it was embarrassing. I look at it differently now, because it's like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm not alone.' "
And from there, the conversation moves on to talk about the members' children or their recent Christmas party. That's not uncommon, Goffin says. "There are some meetings when we hardly talk about diabetes at all, and some where we don't talk about anything else." And for these friends, that's not intimidating at all.