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Living with type 2 diabetes – Thomas Chang

Thomas Chang is the first Type 2 Team Novo Nordisk ambassador for 2021. His life changed forever when he was 40 years old, a routine physical turned into a warning to change his lifestyle, lose weight and dramatically alter his diet. A year later and his doctor’s fears were confirmed, Chang was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes.

How did your passion for cycling come about?

It really took off when I went to college. One of my fraternity brothers was a junior national champion. I’d see him ride his rollers in the fraternity house and I learned about the bikes he had. That was one of the things that sparked an interest. The other was getting a part-time job in a bicycle store. That was my path to getting access to cycling equipment at a reasonable price.

So, were you very active at that stage, riding regularly?

In high school I played many sports. My lead sport was track and field, I was a sprinter, hurdler and jumper. I got to the state competition level in high hurdles. Then I tried to transition that into university. The challenge going to high school from high hurdles to college is you go from 39 inch to 42 inch tall hurdles and I didn’t have the leg length to get over 42 – that’s when I transitioned to cycling.

How old were you when you were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes?

I was 41 years old. When I turned 40, I thought I should get an annual physical as that’s what everyone does when they turn 40. I went in and the doctor said, actually very few people come in for their annual physical.

He said your blood sugar is a little bit high, why don’t you lose weight and we will measure it again next year. The next year he goes, you’re no longer borderline, you have type 2 diabetes.

What did your life look like from being a cyclist in college to getting diagnosed at 41? What was your lifestyle look like in that middle period?

I went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for both undergrad and business school. When I started my career after that, I was sucked into it. I was based in Silicon Valley and most of our customers were based in Asia, so I was travelling there once a month. You can imagine the disruption to any kind of routine I tried to have. I gained a lot of weight. I grew to 220 lbs (100 kg’s). I was still interested in cycling. I would have trips to Europe and look at where all the famous races were and visit bike shops but I was on the outside looking in at that point. 

Did the diagnosis come as a shock?

It was a little bit of a shock but as I learnt more about it, there was stuff I learnt I could do. I have an older cousin in Australia and when I went to visit him, he was totally ripped. He was swimming every day, so I started swimming. I swam 5 or 6 times a week and doing 2 to 3 kilometres a time but my blood glucose numbers weren’t really moving. That’s when I looked back and thought about cycling. In cycling, you’re using your biggest muscles – your legs – and I thought that’s the supply and demand problem of glucose. I have too much supply of glucose and I need more demand to use it up so I turned to cycling and see my weight dropping quickly.

Did you have an easy acceptance of the diagnosis?

There was a little bit of denial at first but one of the things that dominates my personality is the desire to solve a problem – to break it down. It came to be the supply and demand I talked about. If I could use more of the glucose floating around in my blood, that was my way of getting on top of it. That’s what I try to tell people, try to learn more about your particular condition and work with it.

What is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?

That’s a good question because most people don’t understand the difference. For the person affected by type 1 diabetes, their body makes little to no insulin. Which means they have to augment their day with insulin injections and try to balance how much glucose or sugar they are taking in versus how much insulin they are taking to manage that.

Type 2 diabetes is typically a condition where your body still makes insulin but for some reason your body is not using it appropriately. Your body is not signaling to make it at the right time or it’s not making enough, or it’s making enough but not using it in the most effective way.

When I broke down the problem to, I have type 2, I looked at which one of those use cases of type 2 seems to fit my situation. The one thing many people don’t get tested on is…they see your blood sugar is high in a test and to me the obvious next question is, am I still making insulin? Many doctors don’t order that test to find out what is the supply and demand for sugar and insulin.

How did you come into contact with Team Novo Nordisk?

Back in 2009 I was sitting in the waiting room of my endocrinologist. I wanted to get medical advice from someone who really knew what the problem was so I escalated above my normal doctor. I was sitting there waiting for my appointment and the cover story of Diabetes Today was of the team. I went to the team website, called them up and said hey, can I buy some kit, I’m interested in what you’re doing. They invited me to join and motivate people with my story to be active. That was 11 years ago.

What motivates you?

My motivation is my daughter. I was diagnosed at 41. My daughter was born when I was 42. The realization that she has roughly 20 years living together with me, I have to be in better shape to keep up with her because I’m going to be one of the older dads. She’s my motivation.  

— Xylon Vaneyck to www.teamnovonordisk.com