Isidingo's Ma Agnes: my life with diabetes

Novo Nordisk
When Keketso Semoko was first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes seven years ago, she cried for days. "I was so depressed. I love baking; I'm addicted to chocolate; and I knew that all this would have to change. It felt like my life was coming to an end," Keketso, who stars as Ma Agnes in the hit SA soapie Isidingo, recalls.

"Even though we have diabetes in our family, my diagnosis came as a surprise. I felt very tired, thirsty and had to go to the bathroom often; but I did not make the connection."

Keketso's family seems to have a genetic predisposition for diabetes. Her father had diabetes; her brother has diabetes and some members on her mother’s side of the family also have diabetes. “We are a family of diabetics; it’s just my mother who managed to sidestep this condition."

The first two years of living with diabetes were very hard. "I felt down in the dumps and really sorry for myself, until I realised one day that I needed to walk away from it all and take charge of my life. The moment I took that decision, I started to feel much happier and healthier."

'Die-bit-by-bit disease'

"You know, in the townships some people refer to diabetes as the 'die-bit-by-bit' disease; they believe that there is no hope when you're diagnosed with diabetes. However, that's simply not true anymore. A lot has changed. Diabetes has become a manageable chronic disease – by following a healthy lifestyle and proper diabetic care, you can live a good life."

Keketso, who recently took on the important role of Changing Diabetes ambassador to help raise diabetes awareness, says she has always eaten relatively healthy.

"My mother is a retired nurse; she taught us healthy eating habits from early on – lots of fruit, veggies and brown rice. So, when I was diagnosed with diabetes, I didn't have to change my eating plan too much - I just needed to learn to curb my weaknesses for chocolate and cake."

She also needed to exercise more. "It’s important to educate yourself around diabetes. I have learned so much. I've learned, for example, that if I exercise regularly, my diabetes is more manageable. I exercise at least one hour a day walking or otherwise using the treadmill.

"I have also learned the importance of rest. If I suffer from lack of sleep, it influences my blood sugar levels and my feet become swollen. For that reason, I have to take a nap in the day. Even a powernap of 15 minutes does wonders - I feel refreshed."

Heart attack

Keketso is lucky in that she does not suffer from high blood pressure or high cholesterol, conditions that often plague diabetes patients. She did, however, have a serious health scare two years ago,w hen her body stopped producing insulin altogether.

Insulin is needed to move blood sugar (glucose) into cells, where it is stored and later used for energy. Without insulin, the body has no energy to perform its important functions; and the glucose levels keep rising in the blood, causing damage to organs such as your heart.

"Two years ago I got very ill. I started to feel extremely tired and weak. I remember, it was a week after filming the scene of Ma Agnes and Zeb getting remarried. I went to the doctor who told me to pack my bags and go to the hospital at once.

"We discovered that I had had a mild heart attack. The reason? My beta cells got exhausted and stopped producing insulin altogether.

"Since then, I've gone onto insulin and I'm as happy as a fish."

Keketso's diabetes treatment exists of a combination of oral tablets and insulin. She checks her blood glucose levels regularly and goes for tests every six months.

"Living with diabetes has forced me to become a little more selfish and to make more time for myself. I'm learning that I can't please everyone. I have to make choices and learn to say no' and look after my health. If I didn't do that, I would've been in the grave a lot earlier."

Balancing act

Keketso has a busy life with working on the Isidingo set, public appearances and involvement in different projects such as the Changing Diabetes programme. "It's a balancing act. My days are long and I make a conscious effort to schedule time for rest, exercise and regular meals in my daily routine.

"When I'm away from home, I have to order my own food and request diabetic meals on flights. I always carry a little bag with snacks such as nuts and raisins with me. Lately, I've developed a taste for biltong!"

Keketso's healthy lifestyle is starting to rub off on the people around her, including her colleagues on the Isidingo set.

"My Isidingo cast members feel guilty when they eat junk food," she laughs. "When I come in, they hide their unhealthy snacks and say 'Quick, quick, put it away before Keketso sees it'," she laughs. "But they also look out for me and make sure I stick to my diet. We all have become more conscious of the responsibility we have towards ourselves and our health."

* Keketso recently joined leading diabetes care company Novo Nordisk and a number of journalists for a fun morning of cooking healthy great-tasting diabetic meals. The cookout was led by Masterchef South Africa 2012 runner-up Sue-Ann Allen, who developed the scrumptious recipes especially for Novo Nordisk. Check out the recipes here.
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