Network of women supporting women

Laura Ely

DURHAM, N.C. — After living with diabetes for 18 years and working in a variety of diabetes treatment settings, including hospitals, clinics, and nonprofit organizations, Brandy Barnes realized what was missing in the field of diabetes treatment.

She had excellent healthcare providers, all the latest diabetes gadgets, subscriptions to diabetes journals and memberships to diabetes organizations.

What she did not have was a friend who had diabetes – a friend who understood what it was like to be a woman with diabetes in today’s world.

Barnes had fleeting glimpses of such a friendship.

The diabetes educator at her diabetologist’s office also had diabetes. Barnes found herself anxiously anticipating her appointments every three months because she knew that she would have the opportunity to talk to her and ask the questions that only another woman with diabetes could answer.

She recalls always walking away from those appointments with a renewed sense of empowerment.

Determined to make it easier for women with diabetes to connect and support each other, Barnes launched a website called DiabetesSisters in January 2008.

The website quickly grew to over 1,000 members with visitors coming from 145 different countries. In less than one year after launch, the organization received it’s 501(c)3 nonprofit status and its first grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation.

The mission of DiabetesSisters is to empower women with diabetes by providing a network of peer support and education. The organization is guided by the belief that all women with diabetes should have access to a healthy support system that includes peers with diabetes.

A healthy support system provides encouragement, empowerment and education with the purpose of helping every woman reach her full potential in life.

The organization offers a variety of programs online, including a free medication and appointment-reminder program, a diabetes buddy program, a women’s forum, weekly Type 1, Type 2, and Pregnancy blogs, and a variety of health and legal experts (many who have diabetes themselves) to answer questions submitted by readers.

Barnes believes that friendship and support are among the basic requirements for everyone in life.

“We all want to be understood,” she says. “Women with diabetes are no different. We just have the additional factor of a chronic illness which also needs to be understood and appreciated.”

Since friendships can be difficult to find in today’s fast-paced, impersonal world, it is not surprising that women with diabetes are twice as likely to experience depression as women who do not have diabetes.

Women with diabetes are also disproportionately affected by depression compared to their male counterparts. A 2001 study published in Diabetes Care magazine found that 28 percent of women with diabetes had depression compared to 18 percent of men with diabetes.

However, it probably is surprising to learn that women with diabetes face many other unique health issues in addition to depression.

Women with diabetes also are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Deaths from heart disease in women with diabetes have increased 23 percent over the past 30 years, compared to a 27 percent decrease in women without diabetes.

Women with diabetes are 7.6 times more likely to suffer from peripheral vascular disease than women without diabetes.

In general, women are also more likely to be obese and sedentary than men, which can increase the risk of diabetes and make diabetes more difficult to control.

In 2007, the US Food and Drug Administration reported that women with diabetes face unique challenges that make the disease difficult to manage, acknowledging that “for women with diabetes, hormonal changes bring unexpected challenges during puberty, pregnancy and menopause.”

Women with diabetes also face a 50 percent higher risk of diabetic ketoacidosis than their male counterparts.

Not only are most women with diabetes unaware of these facts, many practitioners are unaware of how disproportionately women are affected by diabetes.

DiabetesSisters received its first grant of $9,535 from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation in December 2008. This funding allowed the organization to significantly increase its reach through a partnership with Taking Control of Your Diabetes, a nationally recognized diabetes organization.

On May 2nd of this year, the two organizations partnered on an event at the Raleigh Convention Center that drew more than 1,000 people with diabetes from local communities, most of them women.

Barnes is currently seeking funding to expand the organization through initiatives such as quarterly DiabetesSisters meeting groups in North Carolina and an Annual DiabetesSisters Retreat to involve women from around the world.

“As long as women with diabetes are faced with increased health risks and feeling alone and lacking support, there will be a need for DiabetesSisters,” Barnes says.

Laura Ely is communications coordinator for DiabetesSisters.

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