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Even before coffee I have an injection
Yolande Bennett and daughter Rachel Cribbon. Picture: Robert Duncan/The West Australian

When Yolande Bennett's daughter Jessica was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of four, she asked what the prospects were that her other daughter, Rachel, could similarly develop the disease. The answer was that Rachel's risk was minimal -about 4 per cent - but before long, she also started to show signs of diabetes.

"Two and a half years later I noticed she was drinking a lot and then waking up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night and saying 'Mum, I need another drink, I'm really thirsty'," Ms Bennett says.

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"Rachel started to lose a lot of weight. I did a finger prick with Jessica's glucometer and I took her into Princess Margaret Hospital that day and she also was diagnosed with type 1."

It was a shock, Ms Bennett says, but it prompted her to ask whether she or her husband would also develop diabetes. This time, they were told they were "too old" for type 1 and didn't have the risk profile for type 2.

Ten years later, when Ms Bennett was 46, she was out for lunch with her eldest daughter wondering about her own recent clutch of symptoms. A pinprick test later and she realised that she, too, had the chronic disease.

"I nearly died of shock when I got a reading of 26.9 which is very high. I just looked at my daughter and said 'I'm a diabetic' and she started to cry," Ms Bennett says.

"I had to hide my feelings because my immediate reaction was shock and horror. But when I saw the expression on my daughter's face - she has lived with this all her life - I said 'If you can do this, I can too'."

That positive attitude has been vital in helping Ms Bennett and her daughters cope with type 1, which can be a debilitating condition. Every meal, every activity, every trip out from home has to include some planning about how the action will affect blood sugar levels and what steps they may need to take to mitigate rises or falls.

The daily routine of insulin injections sees Ms Bennett having to inject up to six times a day and test blood glucose levels anything between 15 and 20 times a day depending on her movements.

"If your sugar is up a bit or your sugar's down you adjust what you are eating and I can manage it reasonably well, though there are unforeseen fluctuations," she says.

"You almost have to live like a robot, which is virtually impossible since any changes from diet, exercise, insulin or even hormonal and stress levels can also make an impact on your blood sugar levels.

"My lifestyle is fairly fast-paced - I'm a very active person, I go to the gym most days of the week and I play pennants tennis. When you do any exercise at that level you increase your risk to having low blood sugars. Even before having a cup of coffee I have an insulin injection because it has milk in it and I have to pre-empt the amount of insulin that I need for what I am eating or drinking, especially if it is before or after intense exercise."

While managing type 1 diabetes is something Ms Bennett has been able to master, she still runs up against widespread misunderstanding of the disease, its causes and the measures needed to address it.

"The difference between the types of diabetes is the biggest area where there is misunderstanding," she says.

"Type 2 diabetes affects 90 per cent of the diabetes population and only 10 per cent are type 1. They are almost different diseases - they affect the same part of the body but the mechanics are different.

"Most people who get type 2 can reverse it by lifestyle changes, by improving diet, or by increasing exercise. With type 1 you get diagnosed with it through no fault of your own, it cannot be reversed and there is no cure as yet.

"When my four-year-old was diagnosed people used to say 'Did you give her lots of sugar?' Which was incredibly frustrating.

"This is an autoimmune disease that appears literally out of the blue and is triggered by a virus."

Another area where many people lack awareness is how to provide first aid - particularly in cases of a severe "hypo", when blood sugars drop very low.

Ms Bennett says it is crucial people act immediately if assistance is required, staying calm and giving the person a high-sugar carbonated drink.

"Coke or lemonade usually does the trick but it is possible to lose consciousness or have a seizure," she says. "At that point just call an ambulance and stay alongside until they arrive."

Ms Bennett is now involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which works to raise awareness of the disease and funds to research the condition and offers support to parents whose children have recently been diagnosed.

"Diabetes is something you live with. You never, ever get a break 24/7," Ms Bennett says.

"But there are many famous sportspeople and high-profile people out there who are type 1 diabetics. I have always told my daughters 'You can do anything you want, you just have to work hard at keeping your levels under control'."