Kov Soriya is one of the 2.3% of Cambodians who suffer from diabetes. Diabetes is a silent killer, since in the majority of Cambodians it remains undiagnosed, and is particularly high despite most sufferers being lean (not overweight) when compared to other countries. Soriya shared with me her experiences of having diabetes in a country with limited healthcare and knowledge about health and diseases.
Is diabetes a big issue in Cambodia?
I don’t know how widespread diabetes is in Cambodia, but my doctor told me that the rate of people diagnosed with diabetes rose by 50% between 2000 and 2006. This is mainly because a while ago people were tentative to go to health clinics, and didn’t think about their health that much, but now more people are conscious about their health and check up on it more, and have more faith in hospitals.
The main problem is that people who have diabetes have to travel to Phnom Penh [the capital] to see diabetics specialists: in the provinces they have no access to doctors or insulin.
The Cambodian diet is quite high in sugar, for instance in cooking and popular drinks, which leads to a higher risk of diabetes. How informed do you think people are about the disease?
There is very little understanding and knowledge about diabetes in Cambodia. People just know that it is extremely bad for them: they always say that diabetes is the “rich man’s disease” because, due to the system of healthcare being very difficult to access, it is extremely expensive to treat.
The first time I saw the doctor, the nurse was asking me very crazy questions like “are you married”, “do you have children” which in Cambodian culture it is not appropriate, so I was annoyed and said no I don’t. She then told me that I shouldn’t expect to have any children or a husband in the future now that I have diabetes. And this is the attitude of most people in Cambodia: they think that when you are diagnosed with diabetes, that there is nothing more for you to live for.
Luckily I talked to my doctor, and he explained to me about how to manage my diet and my medicine, and after following his advice I felt a little hope for my future.
What was your thought process when you discovered that you had diabetes?
For two months I cried and avoided people, because when the people I knew found out I had diabetes they told me that my life had finished, and started to ignore me. I thought that I would lose everything in my life, and that everything I had worked towards had fallen apart. I lost weight. Twice I almost killed myself because I thought that there was nothing to live for anymore.
What was your biggest fear at that point?
My biggest fear was about the expense. I had just graduated from university, I didn’t have a job and I came from a very poor and remote area. There was no means to pay for my healthcare, and because of this, I worried that I would not have a long life.
How did your family react?
My family were very supportive during this time. My dad said, “daughter you don’t have to think about that. My life is for you and I will give you everything until I have nothing more, and I will not let you go. If I let you go then I will have to go first”. And he hugged me and reassured me. His words really touched my heart and he and my mother gave me the motivation to battle diabetes.
What were the challenges you had to overcome since having diabetes?
Before I worked for VSO, I worked in the jungle in a conservation organisation. Because there were no fridges or ice available in the rural areas, storing insulin in the right conditions was extremely difficult, and I had to throw a lot of my insulin away because of this. My health got worse as I couldn’t take my medicine, and had little time to rest and no control over my diet. Eventually, I had to resign from my favourite job, so I could move somewhere where I would have better access to healthcare.
Have you met people with the same disease?
Yes I have. My friend’s parents have diabetes and she told me where I can access the doctor and medicine. My friend who lives in Australia also has a 5 year old son who has diabetes, and she sent me some information about how to monitor my diet, but because of the free treatment in Australia he is quite a bit luckier than me and it is not such a bad problem.
If you had the chance to talk to someone who discovered they had diabetes, what would you tell them?
I would tell them to follow the doctor’s advice, which has given me such a good result on my health. Monitor your food and cook your own meals. Also, find out which type of diabetes you have: type one or two, because your medicine with depend on this – but don’t rely on the tablets or insulin, you’ve got to watch your diet and exercise too. If you do it properly, you could have better health than a non-diabetic person!
Soriya’s story highlights how important it is for people to understand about health. Misinformation can not only lead to poor physical health, but also can have serious consequences for your mental health too. Raising awareness of diabetes in Cambodia and elsewhere can improve the lives of people after being diagnosed with the disease, and can prevent people from getting it in the first place.