Catherine Vancak was diagnosed with type1 diabetes in 2011 just as her ballet career was taking off.
I was about to graduate with my bachelors in dance from the University of Alabama. After dancing at the top of my game for so long, my body rapidly gave out on me. I had been feeling very ill throughout December and knew something was wrong. I was drinking as much Gatorade as I could, and couldn’t make it through an hour long rehearsal without going to the bathroom. I noticed that the other dancers didn’t have this problem. I thought I had the flu or was pushing myself too hard.
After barely surviving Christmas I was diagnosed in January of 2011 with Type 1 Diabetes. I sometimes jokingly say that diabetes was my Christmas present. It was such a difficult hit to my self-esteem and my dancing. I was just starting my first ballet job at the Montgomery ballet, and after a month of high blood sugars all of the strength and technique I had worked so hard to perfect had disappeared. I had a lot of work to do to get my life back on track. I started on Lantus and Apidra, and three months later I went on the pump. It was a very rocky start but I tried to keep fighting.
Tell me about dancing…how long have you been dancing? Were you concerned after you were diagnosed that you might not be able to compete or to continue dancing?
I’ve been dancing since I was four years old. So, I have been dancing for two decades already! I began in a little ballet class for children and quickly fell in love with it. I also love modern dance and flamenco. I moved my way up through the School of Alberta Ballet and after high school, I moved into their university program at the University of Calgary in Canada. After two years I transferred to the University of Alabama to finish my degree, and spent two and a half amazing years performing, perfecting my technique and choreographing. My love for choreography blossomed during my years there and I graduated Summa Cum Laude, but also with Type 1 Diabetes.
I quickly became injured at my new job following my diagnosis, and I seriously began to consider quitting ballet. I felt as if my body had been destroyed and I didn’t know how to fix it. I had devoted my life and sacrificed everything for this art, quitting was such a painful thought, but it was becoming a reality. I would sit on my own and wonder if I could ever rebuild my body and mind back to where I was. How long would it take? What would I do? No one could give me the specialized advice I needed. I felt alone and confused with this new challenge in my life.
Just as soon as I began to give up, I was given the most wonderful opportunity. Arova Contemporary Ballet in Birmingham Alabama contacted me offering me a soloist position. I couldn’t believe it. My emotional strength was recharged and I was determined to come back to dance stronger than what I was after my diagnosis. My injury required surgery so after a full year of rehab and hard work I returned to ballet to begin work at my new company. I am now on par with everyone else and my body dances even better than it used to. I really was able to come back. It took a very long time and was full of hardships. Even though it was difficult and frustrating, I had come so far with ballet, and it was too late to turn back. The way I see it is that ballet came first and I wasn’t going to let diabetes knock it out of position as the love of my life.
How do you manage your blood sugars with your training?
Ballet training has a bit of a love hate relationship with my diabetes. The exercise and motivation to condition and take care of myself certainly keeps my body insulin sensitive, but the stress and adrenaline from performing or trying to be perfect takes its toll. I try to be as consistent as possible and examine the variables that play with my blood sugars. I enjoy cycling to my classes, running, and swimming for cross training and I use Pilates, floor barre and physical therapy to support my dancing. I also eat a pretty strict Paleo diet with no grains, no dairy and limited carbohydrates. I turned to the Paleo diet when I was having high blood sugars that would crash low and swing back up causing my performance to deteriorate. I just didn’t have the time to deal with the lows and highs and eating this way makes things far simpler. I really try to reduce my stress by keeping my life organized and taking time for myself, even if it is just for a few minutes. I’ll admit I am a crazy perfectionist, but I try not to beat myself up if things don’t go as planned.
Do you feel diabetes has held you back at all with your dancing career? If so, why or why not?
I don’t think that diabetes has held me back with my dance career. I wear a One Touch Ping and a Dexcom in a little belt during my ballet classes and rehearsals and it blends right in with my leotard. I do have to remove them for contact dancing like partnering and arial work. My artistic director is wonderful to work with. She has my best interests at heart and supports me if I am having a bad diabetes day. She even knows how to give me glucagon (an injection to raise blood sugar quickly) if needed.
Having said that, there are times when I feel like diabetes tries to get in my way. Coming to rehearsal with a high blood sugar makes me spaced out and makes it difficult to remember what movements are being asked of me. I’ve also had times when fellow dancers take their hands on my shoulders and sit me down if I’m low. It always emotionally hurts to be forced to sit down when I’m low and watch the rehearsal or class move forward without me. Sometimes I guilty of ignoring my Dexcom and pushing through it, but that is dangerous and I try my best to avoid it.
You are working towards your masters in nursing and want to work with diabetics, is that right? When did you first decide to go in this direction? How do you think you can help others with diabetes and what would you want to teach others?
I’m actually in the process of applying for medical school. I’m finishing up my pre-med classes, along with dancing full time. I’m also on the junior board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and am lucky enough to shadow my own endocrinologist. My time is sparse, but I am doing quite well so far. Medicine has always been an interest of mine. I have wanted to be a doctor as long as I have wanted to be a ballet dancer. Dancing is a time sensitive career, so I mentally prepared myself to shoot for two careers in my lifetime. I am so lucky to have the opportunity to live out both of my lifelong dreams.
I have a passion for working with other diabetics especially pediatrics. I may be a grown up, but I am still a big kid inside. Being a doctor is something very close to my heart, but what I can do with a medical degree is even more important. I would love to help athletes excel and children grow up healthy and strong despite having diabetes or other endocrine disorders. I want to help my patients achieve their dreams.
When I was diagnosed, all my medical professionals told me I could do anything with diabetes, but they never told me how get there. I had to do all of the work and experimentation on my own. Why can’t there be an open dialogue between doctor and patient where the aspirations and goals of the patient are respected? I’ve only known one doctor who has treated me like that and one is not enough. Diabetes is such a difficult, multifaceted disease and having a doctor who understands its intricacies is extremely valuable.
Tell me about Dtreat…I wish I’d known about it! I’ve heard so many great stories about diabetes camp, but never attended one myself. How has this experience benefited you?
Ah yes, Dtreat! Dtreat is a weekend diabetes camp for Type 1 diabetics aged 18-25. I had been diagnosed for 6 months before I attended Dtreat. Before Dtreat I didn’t “own” my diabetes. I hid my pump, my testing supplies and even referred to it as “this whole diabetes thing” as opposed to “my diabetes.” I thought if I could distance myself from the diabetes monster, then I wouldn’t have to take ownership of it, that it couldn’t touch me, or hurt me.
At Dtreat I met some incredible, inspiring people that truly “owned” their diabetes. They were in control of it, it wasn’t controlling them. Seeing that example stand right in front of me gave me the strength to take the reins and be proud that I was now a part of the diabetes club. I finally felt supported. I had people there who understood exactly what I was going through and my struggles were now validated. The friends I made at Dtreat are friends that I hold very close to my heart. Dtreat also showcased examples of extraordinary people living with diabetes enjoying wonderful lives. It proved to me that I could come back fully to dance. I had proof that I could survive and thrive!
I truly believe that diabetes camp is a wonderful adventure that every diabetic should be able to experience. Since Type 1 is a bit of a rarity you can feel alone in your fight, but seeing so many people sharing your struggles helps more than words can say.
What kind of advice would you give other young women with diabetes?
My best advice would be to keep going. I love this story. As I was recovering from a surgery 4 years ago, my mother asked me once I had achieved my dreams and was being interviewed for “Dance Magazine” what would I say the secret to my success was. I told her “I kept going.” Stay strong, we all stumble sometimes, but it’s more important about how we pick ourselves up and keep fighting than how many times we fall down.