'I ignored it and I almost killed myself doing it': Actress Lea DeLaria confused menopause symptoms for this disease

While diabetes runs in her family, Lea DeLaria was “completely surprised” by her diagnosis. (Photo by Leon Bennett/WireImage)
While diabetes runs in her family, Lea DeLaria was “completely surprised” by her diagnosis. (Photo by Leon Bennett/WireImage)

Comedian and actress Lea DeLaria was in her mid-50s when she was diagnosed with diabetes, but she wrote off her symptoms for years.

“I had all the symptoms of diabetes — frequent urination the middle of the night, feeling like I had no energy — but those are also symptoms of menopause,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I just thought I was doing the menopause thing, but it lasted for almost a decade.”

DeLaria only went to the doctor after her “menopause” symptoms got to be too much. But, after a round of tests, including a blood test, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. “I had it bad,” DeLaria says. At the time, her blood sugar was 400 mg/dl — the American Diabetes Association (ADA) uses 200 mg/dl as the baseline for diagnosing diabetes.

While diabetes runs in her family, DeLaria was “completely surprised” by her diagnosis. “When my brother was diagnosed with diabetes, I was making fun of him, going, ‘Ha ha. You have to watch what you eat and I can eat whatever I want!’” DeLaria says. “Then, I had to call him and go, ‘Well, I got it too.’”

Related: Lea DeLaria Talks Type 2 Diabetes, Hot Flashes, and Loving Your Body

DeLaria says she and her brother ended up getting into a “strange competition” to see who could better manage their diabetes. “Sibling rivalry really helped me take care of my diabetes.”

“I completely changed the way I eat.”

DeLaria acted quickly after her diagnosis. “I completely changed the way I eat.” Before her discovering she was a diabetic, DeLaria admits that she ate “anything I wanted,” including plenty of pasta. Now, she’s “really strict” about what she consumes. DeLaria’s diet now focuses heavily on protein and green vegetables. “You won’t see me eating a lot of toast, and potatoes are special foods,” she adds. DeLaria eats cake on her birthday and pie on Thanksgiving, but otherwise tends to steer clear of desserts.

Those dietary changes, along with exercising regularly and taking medications caused DeLaria to quickly get her diabetes under control. She also rapidly lost weight. “I wasn’t trying to lose weight and I didn’t really notice the changes until my clothes became baggy,” she explains. It was only during a visit to her endocrinologist that she discovered she’d lost 25 pounds. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s weird,’” she says. Three months after that, she had lost a total of 60 pounds.

While DeLaria’s diet is now more restrictive than it was in the past, she likes to joke about it. “I have a great sense of humor about the whole thing,” she says. “If I waiter asks if I want dessert, I’m like, ‘How dare you? I have diabetes and I’m going to lose an eye just looking at it!’ I find it endlessly entertaining.”

Making some changes at work

DeLaria says her diagnosis has also seeped into her work. When she’s doing stand-up, she has an amenities rider that asks for certain foods and drinks in her dressing room. “My amenities rider has completely changed from what it was before, which was basically sandwiches,” she says. Now, her rider includes foods like salad and salmon.

She’s also found that her diabetes comes up when she’s filming TV shows. DeLaria just finished shooting scenes for Hulu’s Reprisal and needed to talk to the craft services staff about the food on set. “Even the nuts had fruit in it,” she says. “I went to them and said, ‘I’m a diabetic and I can’t eat a single thing here.’” (She says the staff was “really cool” about providing the right foods for her.)

And, when DeLaria needed to film a scene for Orange Is the New Black, where she had to run into a lake, she had to check with her doctor to make sure it was OK for her to do it. (People with diabetes are more prone to developing serious foot infections than the general public.) “Luckily, I got to run in with my boots on,” she says.

“I feel a thousand times better than I did before.”

DeLaria made changes to her lifestyle so quickly that her thinking became foggy. “My brain had to basically be weaned off all that sugar,” she says. “Once we got all that fixed, I could distinguish between this was menopause, this is the diabetes.”

Now, she says, “I feel a thousand times better than I did before.”

DeLaria urges other people to look out for symptoms of diabetes. “Diabetes isn’t something that you can ignore — it won’t go away,” she says. “I ignored it and I almost killed myself doing it.”