Christina Herrera wasn’t shocked when she learned she had type 2 diabetes.
The disease had long been “knocking on my door,” she said.
Almost 13 years ago, her mother died from diabetes. In 2016, her sister Jessica died after heart surgery. Her father was a double amputee because of diabetes; he died in July 2019.
“When Jessica passed, I realized this was a trickling-down effect, and if I don’t start taking care of myself, something is going to happen,” said Herrera, 45. “Of course, it was due to diabetes, not taking care of herself.” The link between type 2 diabetes and heart disease was painfully evident.
After her sister’s death, Herrera approached her doctor reluctantly, afraid of what she might find out. But she was determined to be healthier for herself and her now 12-year-old son, Diego.
“I told my doctor, ‘I lost my mom. I just buried my sister.’ I had to put it out there,” said Herrera, who teaches history at a Dallas high school.
When bloodwork showed that Herrera was prediabetic, her doctor told her to eat better.
“I asked her what that looks like,” Herrera said. “She said, ‘You’re a teacher. You know how to do research. Get to work.’” She was working against the statistic that people with type 2 diabetes have double the risk of heart disease and stroke.
When she learned better, she did better. She eschewed soda in favor of water and began lifting weights and eating oatmeal.
However, in people living with type 2 diabetes, even when blood glucose is well managed, there is still an increased risk of having severe heart-related problems. Herrera experienced heart attack symptoms while at work. The emergency department visit revealed three blocked arteries which led to triple bypass surgery. It was her final wake-up call.
Herrera doubled down on her research, reading labels in earnest and checking out menu options in her favorite restaurants. A small, seemingly innocent kale salad from a favorite fast food restaurant, she discovered, has 11 grams of sugar. And honey, as healthy as it may sound, is a form of sugar. A cup of mango pieces has a whopping 23 grams; a serving of sweetened cereal 9. So she switched to strawberries (8 grams per cup) and unsweetened cereal (1 gram).
Herrera, a Know Diabetes by Heart ambassador, also started running. That’s where her champion, Juanita Cano, comes in.
The two had been two grades apart at North Dallas High School but were friends through the school’s theater productions. Throughout the following years, they kept in sporadic touch. Then Herrera had her heart attack.
Cano, who has a neurological disorder that causes her to be in almost constant pain, is an avid runner and athlete.
“I’d been chronicling my journey back to fitness and back to mobility,” she said. “I didn’t know Christina was following me on Instagram, until she said, ‘If not for you, I’d be sitting on the couch feeling sorry for myself.’”
Herrera began running in October 2018, and with Cano’s encouragement, signed up for a 5K two months later.
“We walked/jogged it,” Cano said. “She did amazing. After it, I said, ‘OK. Now you’ll want to do a longer race.’”
“No, I won’t,” Herrera said.
“Yes, you will,” Cano countered.
They’re training for a 10K in December.
“We hold each other accountable,” Cano said.
As Hispanic women with similar backgrounds, they grew up eating the same foods — many of which aren’t diabetes friendly. They understand the cravings and why they can’t let each other give into temptation.
“It’s critical to have somebody who will be a straight shooter with you,” said Cano, who has seen diabetes in her family. “We cheerlead for each other.”
If Herrera calls to say she’s not in the mood to run, Cano tells her: “Go do it. You’re still vertical.”
Some of Herrera’s family members and friends don’t understand her passion for health. Their attitude, she said, is “If I get sick, I get sick.” But she knows the ravages of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It claimed her mom, her sister and her dad.
“Getting up every morning is a wonderful thing,” Herrera said. “Diabetes is not hopeless. You can make changes and you can reverse this.” She’s taking her second chance to build a healthy life for her son.
“I pledge that it ends with me, and that Diego (now an avid spinach-eater) won’t be another patient.”