Viola Davis on her prediabetes diagnosis: ‘It’s been very hard for me’ (Exclusive)

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Viola Davis has chosen to live a life of significance.

The Oscar-winning actress recognizes the immense privilege that comes with being as celebrated of an artist that she has become and, as she told AOL’s Gibson Johns during a recent sit-down interview during the Tribeca Film Festival, she sees that privilege as coming with an important responsibility to pay it forward.

“The absolute truth of being an artist is that nobody has a choice until you’re in that one percent,” Davis explained. “I’m in rich woman territory. I’m in rarified air territory, and once you’re there you can either say, ‘I’m going to stay on top and fight to stay there and to get more money and more notoriety,’ or you can live a life of significance. And that’s what I chose to do.”

The 53-year-old Hollywood stalwart makes sure that every single project she takes on reflects that significance that she strives for. Whether it’s the characters she chooses to portray or the importance of their stories, Davis wants all her projects to have an impact, and her latest venture undoubtedly does: She’s the narrator of a documentary about diabetes called “A Touch of Sugar,” which is part of Merck’s America’s Diabetes Challenge.

In the lead-up to the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Davis explained that it was her family’s painful history with diabetes — and her own diagnosis with prediabetes — that drove her to get involved with the feature.

Check out AOL’s full interview with Viola Davis below, where we discussed her diagnosis with prediabetes, her involvement in “A Touch of Sugar,” supporting people who are following in her footsteps and more:

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As part of your work narrating “A Touch of Sugar” as part of Merck’s America’s Diabetes Challenge, you’re opening up about your own diagnosis with prediabetes. Can you talk to me a bit about being diagnosed and your feelings around it?

I went for a hormone test, and my doctor just happened to take an A1C test, which I had never heard of. It’s a comprehensive test that measures your average glucose levels in the last two or three months and you should take about four of those tests a year. I never knew anything about it, and my numbers were a little elevated. I remember thinking, even then, “How am I going to change my life so that I don’t get type 2 diabetes? I don’t want to change my life. I’m already busy and already exercise and eat right. What did I do to deserve this?” One of the reasons why I narrated the documentary is because I love the word “confronting” the diabetes — the confrontation of it and the sort of demystifying it and knocking it on its head and making people feel less alone — because the numbers are way too high! My two sisters have type 2 diabetes, my great aunt died from it after two amputations of her leg, my paternal grandmother had it, my husband’s mother had two amputations. 30 million adults have type 2 diabetes, 84 million have prediabetes and a lot of people don’t know it. Obviously someone’s not talking and obviously someone needs to talk, so why not me?

Speaking out about anything, much less about something to do with your health, is brave. Did you have any hesitation to speak out on such a personal matter? Or, when you were diagnosed, were you like, I need to address this?

Both: Of course I need to address it even though I didn’t know how to. I consider myself to be very smart about my health, but even just because of the stigma of feeling like you have a disease or could have a disease. Why is that a stigma when so many people have it? Why is that a sign of weakness? Maybe if someone opened their mouth, then there would be no shame involved. It’s like Brené Brown’s famous saying, “when you share your story in a world full of people who have empathy, shame can’t exist.” I think there’s a certain shame attached to diabetes, like you caused it or didn’t control your weight or had too much sugar, but it’s much deeper than that.

What did the doctor tell you in terms of changes that you could make, considering you were already so conscious of your health?

I’m 53, which is a big thing. I’ll admit, it’s been very hard for me. One of the reasons why I’m narrating the documentary, too, is that I love the fact that they have a website people can check — that I’ll be checking myself! — — because I felt like I already know what to do. Yet, doing it at this age, especially with my hormone levels and my metabolism and my schedule, it’s been hard. And then my genetic predisposition to it. She told me what I should be doing even though my glucose levels are fine. They’re perfect. My A1C levels were not — they were a little elevated. 

Talk to me a little bit more about how you ended up narrating this documentary. How did you get attached to the project? What did you learn from the narration experience?

It came to me, like all projects come to me. I chose to take it because I felt that it was a voiceless condition that needed a voice and, through narrating anything, I learn about it. I learn things that I didn’t even know. First of all, the numbers are frightening to me — absolutely frightening –and how difficult it is to manage the disease, but you can manage it. You can work with it. That blew the lid off of everything for me. Also the personal connection, you know? I want my sisters to live a long life. I want to live a long life for my daughter, and to put that “disease” label on it, for me it was just like, “Can you just say ‘diabetes?’ Why does it have to be ‘disease’?” I learned all that through the narration. It woke me up.

There’s a stigma that really shouldn’t be there. I feel as though that instills a fear in people when they hear the word “diabetes.”

And, once again, people don’t want it to interfere with their lives, so if they can ignore it, they will. My new favorite word is “support.” Not “help,” but “support,” to carry people when they can’t carry themselves and that’s what we need to do with each other with this crisis.

You mentioned your daughter, Genesis. Considering that you have a genetic predisposition for prediabetes, was there any worry around passing it down to her, as well?

You really see your own mortality. I’m reluctant to say that, because it’s not a death sentence — you can manage it and live with it. For me, in my brain, I felt like, because of everything that’s happened in my family, I saw my mortality. That’s what lit a fire under my butt. I’m always telling Genesis, “When you’re 18…” And then my next thought is, “I want to be here to see you at 18.”

I’m sure people who see “A Touch of Sugar” will come up to you and thank you for speaking out. What do people say to you when they come up to you?

Everything! I hear everything. The only thing I’m missing is the long beard and the cane and I could actually part the red sea. [Laughs] But for the most part what I get, especially from women of color, is that what I’ve done for women is so valuable, which makes me feel like there’s a voice missing from our lives that I need.

Between “How to Get Away With Murder,” your children’s book “Corduroy Takes a Bow,” and several other recent projects you’ve done, do you feel as though you’ve been able to spread your wings more than before in terms of doing a wider array of projects?

Absolutely. Earlier in my career, I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have a profile, I didn’t have any money and I didn’t have any choices. I’m in a profession that has a 95 percent unemployment rate. Less than one percent of the profession makes $50,000 a year of more and most of those are stand-ins. Only four percent make enough to make plan one or two health insurance, which is $10,000 a year. The absolute truth of being an artist is that nobody has a choice until you’re in that one percent. I’m in rich woman territory. I’m in rarified air territory, and once you’re there you can either say, “I’m going to stay on top and fight to stay there and to get more money and more notoriety,” or you can live a life of significance. And that’s what I chose to do with me and my husband’s production company, with this documentary, certainly, with confronting the diabetes crisis and fighting for my sister and my family. That’s what I choose to do now.

That phrase “career of significance” really struck me, because not everyone in similar positions do that. That’s a choice.

It is a choice, and what’s interesting is, just like we were talking about with diabetes, for me, it’s the only way to live one’s life. We’ve had enough testimonies from the graveyard to know that it’s the only way to live. There’s a lot of need out there. There’s a lot of people who are suffering from diabetes who are looking to be thrown a rope of information, of support and of something that’s constant and ongoing, as well as any number of other factors. Poverty: 46 million people in this country live on or below the poverty line. A lot of them don’t have access to even the information or resources to mange their diabetes. What do you do? What do you do if you have the rope or the information? Do you choose to look back and throw the rope, or do you just move on with your toney life? I choose to do whatever I can.

When you say throwing the rope back, do you mean to the people who come after you in the industry, too?

Yes, but not just people in the industry. Also people back home in Central Falls. I do it in every way I can. Any number or projects or anything I’ve ever done is about living a life better than myself. I’ve seen the limitations of the other — of just living for my own success.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Remember that these are suggestions, and to always consult your doctor before changing your diet and exercise routine.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto


Myth: Beans are proteins so I can eat as many as I want.

Real Deal: In one-half cup of beans, there are 7 grams of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrates. This can add up if you are eating rice and beans!

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto


Myth: I can never eat cake again!

Real Deal: Diabetes is not about deprivation, rather it is about moderation. You can eat all foods when you have diabetes. Adhere to consistent carbohydrate-counting principles and eat your cake with a lean protein and a monounsaturated fat.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto


Myth: The harder I work out the better. Two cardio classes are better than one!

Real Deal: Nope — when your aerobic exercise becomes anaerobic from working out too hard, you raise your blood sugar. Wear a heart rate monitor to help stay in your target heart range and be sure you can talk to your neighbor to help stay in your aerobic zone.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto


Myth: You can eat sugar-free cookies, cakes and ice creams without worrying!

Real Deal: NO. NO. Just because something is sugar-free, it doesn’t mean it is carb-free. Carbohydrates raise our blood sugar because they are sugar!

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto


Myth: Fruit is nature’s gift. I can eat as much as I want.

Real Deal: Fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, beans and grains are all carbohydrates and, thus, affect our blood sugar.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto


Myth: I don’t need to watch my diet if I am on medication.

Real Deal: Eating large meals high in carbohydrates and not exercising still affects the body. If you take insulin, you may gain excess weight if you start eating more carbs now that you can control your blood sugar with insulin. Insulin is not a free pass to eat more than your body needs or more carbohydrates per meal. Keep in mind, insulin lowers your blood sugar but it does not lower your calories. Also, if you are taking oral hypoglycemic agents that help to make your body more sensitive to insulin, recognize your pancreas is still working hard! The more weight you gain, the more muscle you lose, and the more resistant the body becomes to insulin. You must change the way you eat and start moving.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto


Myth: If you have prediabetes, you will most certainly develop diabetes.

Real Deal: You can reverse insulin resistance and prevent diabetes through diet and lifestyle activities such as exercising for 90 to 150 minutes a week.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto


Myth: If I can’t lose 50 pounds, I might as well give up. I am destined to have diabetes just like my father.

Real Deal: Losing just 7 percent of your current body weight decreases your risk of developing diabetes by 58 percent. Set small achievable goals!

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Diet Food

Myth: It’s better to eat diet food like diet soda and diet bread.

Real Deal: Diet soda and diet foods confuse the body and our hunger fullness signal. Instead, eat the real thing and just adhere to your allotted carbohydrates.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Artificial Sweeteners

Myth: If you have diabetes, you should use an artificial sweetener.

Real Deal: Say no to artificial sugars. They upset your stomach and make you crave more sugar! How could that be helpful? It’s not!

Image Credit: Tetra Images

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