Angela Bassett A Type 2 diabetes diagnosis can overwhelm you. But with the right information, you can go on.

If I had known the link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease, my mother and I might have done things differently. I want to give others that chance.
Image: Angela Bassett
Angela Bassett, on NBC's "TODAY" show in New York on Dec. 6, 2019.Nathan Congleton / TODAY
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By Angela Bassett

My mother had Type 2 diabetes. While she was living with and going through that, I didn't know about the strong connection between Type 2 diabetes and heart disease; I just worked to try to make her comfortable and manage the day to day. Perhaps if I had known that people living with diabetes are twice as likely to develop and die from cardiovascular disease, we could have asked her doctor different questions and been more diligent in helping her manage the risk to the complication that would eventually claim her life.

My mother made her transitionbecause of heart failure resulting from her Type 2 diabetes.

She was a woman who truly cared about people in her community. When I wasn't around, my mother spent time with all kinds of folks she had met — especially young people she adored. When she passed, so many individuals she had met wrote me cards. I had no idea that she really spoke to them and brought so much into their lives. She was a simple and hard-working woman. She never made a lot of money, but she had an impact on the lives of those she met.

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I decided that trying to help my mother continue making an impact on people's lives was a way I could honor her. That was why I teamed up with the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association to get the message out about the connection between Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. We are trying to help people like my mother.

For many people, when you hear news that's overwhelming — like a diagnosis of diabetes — you have one of two reactions: You either feel like your feet are being held to the fire and decide, Let's get moving, let's do something about this; or it's like, Oh my God, it's just all too much for me. The collaboration between the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, called Know Diabetes by Heart, helps those people who are newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes (and their loved ones and family members) break down what to do next into bite-size portions, to get a handle on what it all means, so they can manage it and stay in the know.

One important thing we are trying to do is help people have conversations with their doctors about managing their cardiovascular health. I know from experience that it's even hard to know the right questions to begin those conversations. You can start by asking: What changes can I make today? What can I do before my next appointment? What changes can I make to take care of my heart in the long term? How will I know if those changes are having an effect?

Everyone is different so it’s important to always work closely with your doctor on the treatment that’s right for you. Go to KnowDiabetesbyHeart.org for a discussion guide you can print out and take with you, or bring it up on your phone at your appointment.

The site also has stories from people who are dealing with this issue. They are sharing their personal stories to encourage you, and to remind you, that you are not alone. There are even good recipes on the site to help with the dietary changes. Like many people, nutrition was particularly difficult for my mother when dealing with her diabetes. You eat what you like for so many years — 65 years, for her — and then you get this diagnosis and you think: Now I'm supposed to change. How? Where do I start? This is one way.

The other part of this is that non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans are at a significantly higher risk to develop Type 2 diabetes, which researchers think is a result of a combination of factors, including genetics, lifestyle factors, environmental factors and socioeconomic conditions.

Beyond that, we all know that, in this country, there is a great disparity in access to and quality of health care, which also plays out when it comes to Type 2 diabetes and its complications.

For instance, a 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that, though the risk of eye disease among Type 2 diabetes patients is well known, African American and Latino Medicaid patients with Type 2 diabetes were significantly less likely to be offered eye exams than white patients. A 2007 study in Family Medicine showed that even if you control for access to health care and socioeconomic status, Latino patients with Type 2 diabetes were less likely than white patients to have foot exams from their doctors, even though the risk of damage to patients' extremities is well known.

That is why it is so important that everyone has access to information, resources and support, and that they know what questions to ask their doctors and how to follow up. Through Know Diabetes by Heart we want to show people living with Type 2 diabetes that they’ve been diagnosed with a new purpose. Yes, you have Type 2 diabetes and, yes, you can manage it and live your amazing life.

As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, condensed and edited for clarity.