I had an opportunity to speak with television and movie actor Anthony Anderson, who has taken a lead role with Eli Lilly & Company’s F.A.C.E. campaign, a diabetes outreach to African Americans. A veteran of more than 20 films, Anthony, age 41, currently plays Detective Kevin Bernard on NBC’s Emmy Award-winning drama, “Law & Order.”
Nadia: I have 10 questions for you.
Anthony: OK, I have nine-and-a-half answers!
Nadia: (Laughs.) What’s the purpose of the F.A.C.E. campaign? How did you come to join it, and what will it do?
Anthony: F.A.C.E. stands for “Fearless African Americans Connected and Empowered.” The idea is to bring awareness to the African-American community and educate it about type 2 diabetes.
Nadia: Are there factors unique to African Americans that make them more vulnerable to type 2?
Anthony: We seem to be afflicted with this disease more than any other group out there. Every African-American boy today has a 50 percent greater chance of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than a boy from another ethnic group. There are 3.7 million African Americans 20 years and older who are walking around with diabetes right now, and third of them don’t even know it. African Americans are 1.8 times more likely to be afflicted with this disease than Hispanics or whites.
That’s why Eli Lilly has teamed up with the F.A.C.E. campaign to bring that awareness to the African-American community, and that’s why I’m a part of it. I lost my father to type 2 diabetes. I’m a type 2 myself, and so is my mother. I was diagnosed 10 years ago. When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t see any program that spoke to me directly as a young African-American male. So I went out and searched for a program that does speak to youth or younger people about this disease. Frankly, when I thought of diabetes, I thought of it as an old person’s disease. When I came across the F.A.C.E. campaign, it spoke to me and I became a part of it.
Nadia: When you were first diagnosed and saw only messages that didn’t speak to you, did that keep you from taking care of yourself?
Anthony: Well, I’ll answer that indirectly. Like I say, I was actually the first person diagnosed in my family with the disease. Unfortunately for my father, he was diagnosed too late make a difference, and we have no idea how long he’d had it. When he was diagnosed, his diabetes had reached the point that it had taken too great a toll. He had leaking and bleeding ulcers on the backs of his legs, and he could barely walk. His doctors talked about amputation. It was a difficult time for him and a very painful existence.
In terms of my own diagnosis, which happened before all these problems with my father, could I have jumped on it better? Could I have worked on it harder the first eight years? Yes. But I did the best I could at the time. A few years ago, when I was closing in on turning 40, I told myself that I needed to do better at taking care of myself. I was still carrying around excess weight and doing social drinking-maybe a little more than I should have with diabetes. I realized that I needed to keep these things from reaching the point where they could spiral out of control. So I made the conscious decision to eat better and more healthily and to curtail my social drinking. Once I did that, I lost 35 pounds. Eating healthy meals and exercising are things that most anybody can do. It’s just up to you to make the decision to make that change.
Nadia: The first eight years that you had diabetes, you were definitely aware of the complications because of your father. But it wasn’t until two years ago that you made a stronger commitment to change your lifestyle.
Anthony: Yes. You know the disease doesn’t get better; it gets worse over time. My numbers were going in a direction that we didn’t want them to go. I realized that my diabetes wasn’t getting any better because I wasn’t doing anything to make it better. I thought, “I’m not doing as much as I should. I want to take control of it before it takes control of me.” I’d seen what it does when it takes control.
I go to see the doctor more regularly now, so I know where my numbers are and I know when they’re out of whack. I can catch them earlier, unlike when I wasn’t paying attention.
Nadia: Your father’s experience illustrates what can happen when family members have diabetes symptoms, but we’re not educated about what those symptoms mean. What would you say to the African-American community to make it more aware about diabetes and its symptoms?
Anthony: Well, first and foremost, we need to go to the doctor. We need to be in the doctor’s office every six months to see what’s going on with our bodies. It’s a shame that there’s no such thing as a “National Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day,” because we just don’t go to the doctor. It has nothing to do with insurance or anything like that. We just don’t go, especially black men. That’s something that needs to be addressed and talked about. We go to get our oil changed and our brakes done every few thousand miles, so why can’t we go to the doctor to get our own internal engines checked out?
That’s the first thing we have to do. Then, if we’re diagnosed with diabetes, we have to be willing to work hard at breaking old habits. When you look at someone who’s 40, 50, or 60 years old, living a certain lifestyle, and you tell them that they’re going to have to change almost everything they’re accustomed to doing, you’re going to run into some stubbornness and resistance. So they need to be educated about how this disease affects the body and how it can kill silently. Until they’re faced with those facts or have seen a friend or loved one pass away, it really doesn’t hit home. Or it doesn’t hit home until they’re faced with losing a big toe or a leg. That’s why it’s so important that Lilly is sponsoring F.A.C.E. to reach out to the African-American community.
Nadia: How does diabetes affect your work? When you’ve been acting, have you ever experienced high or low blood sugar and had to stop?
Anthony: I’ve pretty much avoided that. I’m on my program and eating the right things when I’m supposed to eat them. Have I experienced low blood sugar? Yes. I think every type 2 has experienced that. In one instance, I experienced low blood sugar because I’d been too good at what I was supposed to be doing. I exercised too much and ate too much of what I was supposed to be eating, which, coupled with my medication, lowered my sugars more than they should have been. It’s a trial-and-error thing, trying to figure out how you’re going to live with this disease, knowing that at any given time you have to prick your finger to check your sugar and see where it is. I have it pretty much under control now that I know how to manage it. It’s all about management.
Anthony: They talk about things like that on the F.A.C.E. campaign’s website (www.face-diabetes.com), where people can log on to get information about the disease. They can also click on to discussions about exercise and about healthy living and eating, including recipes.
Nadia: Is there a particular demographic segment of the African-American community that you are hoping to influence?
Anthony: My concern is that diabetes is disproportionately affecting African Americans as a whole, so I’m not looking to have an impact on any particular group within the community. I do think that as a younger spokesperson, compared to those I’ve seen out there before, I can have an effect. I feel youthful and look younger than my years, so I think I can have an impact on the younger generation as someone that they can identify with. My hope is that they see me as someone they can appreciate and respect, who’s willing to share his story about how he was diagnosed with this disease when he was younger. I’d like them to see how I’ve managed it and what they may have to do if they get the disease. I can’t say how big an impact I’m making or what demographic among African Americans I’m having the most effect on, but I do think I’m making an impact. I’m an African-American man who’s in a position to say something, so I’m going to speak to my community about that.
Nadia: Thank you, Anthony, for taking the time to talk to our readers. I appreciate it.