The Post interviews Tony Award-winning actor Ben Vereen about his stuggle with diabetes. His message: Don’t let diabetes stop you from doing the things that you love.
As millions of fans know, Ben Vereen has been singing, dancing, and acting throughout his celebrated career, earning a Tony Award for his role in the musical Pippin and critical acclaim and nominations for his many memorable performances in more than 60 movies and major theater productions, not to mention guest appearances on many popular TV shows. The actor’s trademark smile and contagious energy continue to win the hearts of audiences nationwide.
Today, Vereen’s on a mission—raising awareness of diabetes, a disease that affects him and more than 23 million other Americans.
Diagnosed with the disease in 2007, Vereen began a personal exploration that prompted him to take on his most challenging role to date—diabetes patient and advocate. Assuming a more visible role, Vereen shares his story as spokesperson for a new campaign Take the Stage for Diabetes Awareness—a national effort designed to help other people and their families successfully live with and manage the disease.
With the help of his physician, Dr. Michael Bush, a leading diabetes expert and professor at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), Vereen is spreading the word. Diabetes certainly isn’t slowing down the veteran actor. In 2009, Vereen is appearing in the musical Mama, I want to Sing!, starring in a Hallmark special, and writing a book—among other projects.
The multi-talented performer shares his experience with the Post, encouraging all people living with diabetes (and those at high risk) to take a more active role in their health and to overcome the fears that many harbor about treatment options.
You have always been so physically active as a dancer, actor, and singer on Broadway and in films. Were you surprised to discover that you had diabetes?
It was a total surprise. I found out during Christmas in 2007. I didn’t know the symptoms of diabetes, but in retrospect I certainly was experiencing the classic symptoms of the disease. For example, I felt lethargic, sat around a lot, and was depressed. I also craved sweets—so much so that I would get up and go out of my house to get candy. I also experienced dry mouth and was urinating very frequently.
Like so many people, I thought it was just a phase that I was going through.
Finally just before Christmas 2007, I passed out after delivering a speech. My daughter was with me at the time and said, “Dad, let’s go to the hospital and check this out.” I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I said, “No, it’s probably just something I ate.” She replied, “No. Let’s check this out.” So we went to the hospital, and they kept me overnight. After measuring my blood sugar levels, they said, “Mr. Vereen, you have diabetes type 2.” I looked around the room and thought that they were talking to someone else.
First, I experienced shock, then denial. I was scared and confused. Initially, I didn’t know what to do. Like so many others, I knew that I needed to exercise and stop eating sugar and other foods. But I wouldn’t do it. Then, the red flag goes up, and all of a sudden you’ve got to stop now.
Eventually I realized, “Wait a minute: this is a blessing. God gave me this body—the temple that is my vehicle through life, and I’ve got to take care of it now.”
Many people first try diet and oral medications. What treatment regimen did they recommend to bring your disease under control?
In the hospital, they put me on insulin right away, because my sugar level was out of control. But I’ve met many people with diabetes who are not on insulin: some watch their diets and exercise, while others take oral medication. It’s different for each of us.
While people with diabetes receive an overview of what to eat, they often don’t really buy it all. After getting out of the hospital, I went to the grocery store and thought, “I can’t eat anything.” But as education steps in, you start reading labels.
When playing in Las Vegas at the Sun Coast Hotel, my daughter told event organizers in advance that I had diabetes and advised them not to put candies and cakes in my room like they usually did.
One of the stagehands came up to me and said, “I understand you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes. I have it, too. I’m going to help you get through this. You can live with this disease. In fact, I’ve lived with it for 30 years. We’re in the wings and watching you. Don’t worry.”
Those were the first enlightening words I heard.
The next day I went to my doctor, Dr. Michael Bush at UCLA, who explained what to do. He advised me to take my medication and suggested ways to make better food choices and incorporate exercise into my life. We discussed the importance of daily blood sugar monitoring and ways to ensure that I reached my treatment goals.
Once aware, I became empowered. I was committed to educating myself about diabetes and worked to manage my blood sugar levels properly, so my diabetes didn’t control me. I know now what to do. Everyone who has diabetes—each one of us—is different. What is right for me might not be right for you.
Diabetes is epidemic in the United States. You were surprised by your diagnosis. Might other people also be surprised to learn that they may also be at high risk for diabetes?
If it happened to me, it could happen to anybody. We live in a better time now. During the debates, President-elect Obama said we’ve got to do something about diabetes in this country. Think about it: almost 24 million people in America are living with diabetes, and six million don’t even know they have it. Every 21 seconds, another American is diagnosed—13 percent in the African-American community.
When I was diagnosed, I was already scheduled to do a concert for juvenile diabetes. When I went on stage, I was coming now as part of the family. I’m part of the “diabetes” community.
Many people discover the disease runs in the family. Was there a family history of diabetes?
Yes, it does run in my family, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.
We found out that it doesn’t matter if there is a family history, diabetes can “jump on” you at any time.
Reading food labels and learning the delicate balancing act that comes with diabetes management can be difficult. How did you learn?
Education. I had to learn. I watched my blood sugar. Of course, my doctor helped me a great deal. Once you begin to know your body then you can tell what works for you. Checking your blood sugar is very important, even if you do not have diabetes. I learned by accident. I advise people to talk with their doctors and have your blood sugar checked during your routine checkup.
What is your personal strategy in coping with diabetes?
My whole new approach is to change the dialogue about diabetes. Instead of saying we’re suffering with diabetes, I say that we’re living with diabetes. Instead making diabetes a challenge, it represents an opportunity.
You’re a stage performer. Do you experience low sugar episodes?
I keep juice on the stage just in case, and my staff is now aware so they watch me. I take care of myself.
Your stage assistants and colleagues are like family. Wouldn’t the same principle apply for any family with a member coping from diabetes?
Exactly. If someone in the family is diagnosed with diabetes, the family should talk with the doctor and ask, “What can we do?” The family can become involved to encourage them (and themselves) to eat better and exercise more. It really is a family affair.
You’re a very busy man. Why step forward to raise awareness?
We’ve got to do something about diabetes—shine a light on the disease and take it to center stage. Diabetes is not a death sentence. We need dialogue about the disease. We’ve got to get in touch with other people about what it is like to live with diabetes, so they can live a better life as well.
Life is good.
Remember, the first step to successfully managing diabetes is committing to your health and talking to your doctor about your individual blood sugar goals, as well as exploring all available treatment options. I began managing my blood sugar levels so that diabetes did not stop me from doing the things I love. And so can you. Don’t let diabetes stop you from doing the things that you love either.
Take the stage, and act on your diabetes today! Check, ask, and become aware. It’s your life.
For more information, visit bensdiabetesstory.com.