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Commentary: This is the time of year to learn about diabetes

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, and everyone in the country should take a few minutes to learn about this growing disease and its effect on our health, communities and economics.

I know first-hand the difficulties living with this horrible disease can cause. My youngest son, Ryan, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when he was 13 years old, and managing it has its challenges.

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The first point in the process of dealing with the disease is to know its symptoms: near-constant urination, thirst, accelerated heartbeat, dry skin and continually sweating. These are all caused by elevated blood-sugar levels.

With Ryan, his symptoms included dizziness, caused by an acceleration of his heart, as well as thirst and urination. After rushing Ryan to the hospital, his elevated sugar levels nearly placed him in a diabetic coma. We just made it in time.

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Type 1 Diabetes, although not as common as Type 2, requires a rigorous regiment of testing blood sugar and injecting insulin, as the body is unable to produce insulin to help break down carbohydrates in food.

There is no cure for Type 1, or any way to prevent it.

Type 2 diabetes is different because the body can produce some insulin and often it can be controlled by diet and exercise along with oral medication.

According to the American Diabetes Assn., more than 30 million adults and children are living with diabetes, while another 86 million are diagnosed as pre-diabetic, with even more going undiagnosed.

Latinos and African-Americans are twice as likely to contract the disease. Many suffer kidney damage, blindness, nerve pain and heart disease, brought on by the advancement of diabetes and the lack of treatment.

My son lives a semi-normal life with the use of an insulin pump attached to his waist. It injects the proper amount of medication into his system throughout the day after he calculates his food intake. He checks his sugar levels almost hourly. His backpack is literally his lifeline with extra supplies, insulin, needles, sweet fixes to increase sugar levels in an emergency, and his backup monitors.

Ryan has managed to live the life he wants, including being a high school football player, but will be insulin-dependent his entire life. He will need constant medication and monitoring every day.

We remember that fateful day, Feb. 22, 2013, and always will. We can remember sitting in the emergency room for most of the day while they were treating him and thinking to ourselves how life had changed for our family and for our son.

As my wife and I came home that night for a few minutes to get him some clothes, we finally broke down in his room, thinking that he had just received his death sentence at such a young age. Since my father had died from diabetic complications at a young age, we assumed that his fate was also sealed. We knew that diabetes and too much insulin could eventually damage his heart.

But after spending a week in the hospital learning of this disease, and with amazing support from other young diabetic families, we have learned to deal with constant health monitoring and the daily challenges. It is a life-changing disease that requires attention every moment of every day.

Here's what we all should know about diabetes: it is an autoimmune disease that is not necessarily hereditary. Insulin today is of much better quality. Treatment today varies a lot from the past as well. New technology and instruments have made life a little easier for diabetics.

The costs to our country are staggering, to everyone, not just diabetic families. Treatment, medication and insurance cost can be prohibitive for many families (while we are blessed, we have spent more than $12,000 in the last year on our son's medication and related costs, over and above what was covered by our insurance).

High-risk communities need to become well-informed about this national crisis. Ailments from diabetes keep Americans from work as they deal with the pain and symptoms and add to individual healthcare costs.

As new tools and technologies are developed, Type 1 diabetics can achieve better glucose control, and their life expectancy can improve.

But the reality is that as a chronic disease it will always be with us and it is a difficult disease to manage. We have come a long way, and the technology is getting better all the time, which offers hope for future generations.

Type 2 diabetics can improve their quality of life with a healthy lifestyle and a reorganization of eating priorities and exercise, which is paramount in reversing the disease and maintaining a better standard of living.

Eating well, exercise and knowing what triggers diabetes is essential. It's not just about junk food or eating too much simple sugar. It's also cultural disposition, hereditary conditions, body tolerance and a person's daily activities, or lack thereof, that determine the likelihood of having diabetes.

I urge everyone to learn more about diabetes by visiting Diabetes.org or visiting their doctors and asking questions, checking their A1C levels, monitoring food intake, learning about healthy-eating alternatives and adding 30 minutes of daily exercise, to avoid this truly brutal disease.

I originally lost 84 pounds through my city's health program and was able to reverse many of my own Type 2 symptoms, so I know it is possible. Not having to deal with diabetes is truly a sweet victory.

I pray for all affected with this terrible disease and those families dealing with their kids. I know what many have endured. They will always have my support and they truly live as inspirations. To my son, you will always be my hero. Keep up the good fight.

MARIO A. GUERRA is president of the Independent Cities Assn. and treasurer of the California Republican Party. He can be reached at marioaguerra.com

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