Tom Hanks’ Type 2 and Public Perception

When actor Tom Hanks revealed that he has type 2 diabetes last week on David Letterman’s “Late Show,” it caused more of a stir than even celebrity chef Paula Deen’s admission that she has the disease.

At the time, Deen’s revelation caused quite a stir because of its irony. Here was a chef noted for her high-fat, high-carb Southern-style cooking–not exactly the diet type 2s should eat or recommend.

But Hanks’ disclosure packs a much bigger punch and will have more of an effect on the public perception of type 2.

For one thing, Hanks puts an immensely popular face on the disease. Americans are already more aware than ever that there is this condition called type 2 diabetes out there that is growing in the number of people its afflicts. But that awareness often is a fuzzy, back-of-the-mind thing that’s much like, “Hey, it’s April 5–I’d better get started on my income taxes.”

So now a beloved actor, long acknowledged as one of Hollywood’s most popular persons, has come flat out and said he has type 2. If somebody as well liked, famous, and important as a two-time Oscar winner, with his wealth and access to the best things of life can become diabetic, well….

The public has been powerfully reminded that type 2 is not an autoimmune disease like type 1. There are things Hanks might have done to prevent or slow the onset of type 2, which means that all adults who are susceptible to the disease have some hand in its onset.

But there’s an effect that will be more subtle on public perception than just the shock at Hanks’ disclosure. He told Letterman that there was no way he was going to follow his doctor’s orders and get back to his high school weight as a means of controlling his blood sugars. It turns out Hanks was a scrawny kid back then, weighing just 96 pounds.

Hanks conceded that reaching his doctor’s goal wasn’t ever going to happen. In saying that, Hanks planted an important idea: At some point, type 2 is something you just have to live with. There are limits to how much of an effect diet and exercise can have on it, as well as limits on how much change in your habits you can make that is reasonable and not threatening to your health.

Beyond that, we’ll just have to see how Hanks’ admission plays out. It seems doubtful that he will make his type 2 as major a focus of his attention as Paula Deen did. But it does seem likely that Hanks, who is a genuine good guy, will understand and act on his ability to sharpen public awareness of type 2. Look for the heavy players in the diabetes community to scramble to get him to act as a spokesman for the cause.

In the meantime, with regrets, but also with genuine warmth, type 2s can say, “Welcome to our world, Tom.”


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