Diabetes Forecast

People to Know 2019: Viola Davis

By Tracey Neithercott ,

Viola Davis
Photograph courtesy of Viola Davis

There’s an episode early in the first season of ABC’s twisty drama How to Get Away With Murder in which attorney Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis, works to appeal the sentence of a man on death row. In an intense courtroom scene, Davis gives her character such steely passion it’s hard to look away from the screen. It’s the sort of performance that cemented Davis as a powerhouse, and one that proves she does tough very, very well.

Even in moments of vulnerability, Davis weaves in a thread of strength, whether she’s playing a formidable attorney, a hurting wife,  or a scared mother. It’s there, too, when she talks about her own childhood—the poverty  she experienced, the racism she endured.  And it’s there when she speaks about fighting for leading roles as an African American woman in Hollywood.

So it may come as a surprise that an item sold at pharmacies for $39.99 could make her feel small and weak.

“I am a tough girl. Like, I jumped out of a plane. I’m not afraid of needles. Nothing,” she says. “I got the A1C test kit, and I was terrified to prick my finger.” She’s talking about the days in 2016 after she was diagnosed with prediabetes. “I kept it in my cabinet for the longest time.”

All the Right Moves

Davis doesn’t worry too much about A1C tests these days, mostly because her doctor does the honors. The office is just down the street from her home, which makes keeping up with regular checks fairly easy (and that long-discarded home A1C kit unnecessary). It’s been part of her routine for years, ever since she went in for the results of a hormone test and walked out with prediabetes.

The diagnosis at age 51 came as a complete shock. “I really felt I was different than my sisters, than my great aunt, whose legs were amputated, than my paternal grandmother—so many people in my family who had ‘the sugar,’ ” she says. “When I got the diagnosis, it just woke me up to how things can really shift.”

Her family may have had a long history of type 2 diabetes but, she reasoned, her focus on fitness and nutrition would help her avoid it. “I always felt like I made healthy choices,” she says. She had been the picture of health. And the picture looked like this: fruit instead of cookies on set, almond milk in place of soda in the refrigerator, and regular sweat sessions to stay in shape.

She did everything right, which is why her diagnosis shook her. “It made me very, very nervous,” says Davis, now 54. Was she destined for type 2, like so many in her family? And what changes could she make to an already buttoned-up lifestyle in order to avoid it? “Because I got nervous, what I did was I shut down emotionally. And because I shut down—because I didn’t know what to do—I was lost.”

An Education

When Davis landed a small role in the 2008 film Doubt, she became an overnight success, more than a decade in the making. With only eight minutes of screen time, she landed a supporting actress Oscar nomination. That was only the beginning. She’s the first African American to win what’s known as the triple crown of acting: an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony.

Her latest project, a documentary produced by the pharmaceutical company Merck, may sound like an outlier. But this one is personal. A Touch of Sugar, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, dives into the diabetes epidemic. Narrated by Davis, it uses interviews with doctors and people with diabetes to give a glimpse of life with the disease. The film aims to raise awareness as well as educate, an aspect that appealed to Davis, who felt uninformed post-diagnosis despite her family’s experience and her own focus on fitness and nutrition. “[Diabetes] is not just rooted in diet and exercise. It’s not even rooted in sugar,” she says. “It’s very complicated, especially if you already have the genetic predisposition.”

If developing prediabetes made Davis question her lifestyle, then learning how to keep her A1C in goal range and prevent type 2 helped her find a way to move forward. “[Prediabetes] made me really be a warrior in terms of reading up and being educated and having a closer relationship to my doctor,”  she says. That’s particularly important as she’s going through menopause, which can make weight gain more likely. “My husband and I, we have a trainer, so I do a lot of weight training,” she says. “But I’m having a hard time with my weight because of menopause.”

And then there’s eating, something Davis thought she’d mastered years ago when she got serious about nutrition. Turns out it’s more complicated with prediabetes. “Yesterday I had some grapes. Then I thought, ‘Oh my God, I shouldn’t be eating grapes!’ But maybe I should. I don’t know,” says Davis.  “I’ve been educating myself about sugar, what spikes your glycemic index, and carbs.”

Out in the Open

The Davis house in Central Falls, Rhode Island, was far from an ideal place to grow up. The building was condemned and infested with rats. Childhood, for the actress, often meant going hungry, and she sometimes thinks about what life might be like if she’d been diagnosed with prediabetes then instead of now. She thinks, too, of people with diabetes living in poverty today.

“When I go back to Central Falls and that surrounding area, I see that the closest hospital is shut down,” Davis says. “There is just a health clinic that only has very limited resources. There are no grocery stores that have fresh foods, and the foods that are healthy are expensive.” 

Those issues also make it hard for people in poor areas to make the necessary lifestyle changes to prevent diabetes. “You’re stigmatizing people for getting a disease that half the population has,” she says, “but at  the same time, you’re making it very difficult for them to treat it.”

Diabetes stigma is a key theme of A Touch of Sugar, and something Davis has struggled with herself. “There’s a sense out there … that you got it because you’re overweight, you eat badly, you don’t work out. That you brought it upon yourself,” she says. “I have to say that maybe I’ve internalized that a little bit.”

In discussing the documentary, she’s working to dispel that stigma. And in her personal life, she’s trying  to give herself a break when it comes to the role she played in her prediabetes diagnosis. “It’s not my fault” is a hard truth she’s still learning. Talking about her diagnosis has helped. “There is something to be said for opening your mouth and sharing your story,” Davis says. “I’m in the phase of my life where I’m about busting out of stigmas. I’m about making people feel less alone.”

To watch A Touch of Sugar, visit atouchofsugarfilm.com and click the "View A Touch of Sugar" link at the top. You can request a DVD or a link to the film.

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