Vanessa Etienne is an Emerging Content Writer-Reporter for PEOPLE. Prior to joining in April 2021, she served as a reporter for Men's Health Magazine and BET Digital after freelancing for publications such as The New York Times and Everyday Health. Originally from northern Virginia, Vanessa is a proud Haitian American with a love for R&B music and mental health topics. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor's in Communication and Public Relations before earning her master's degree in Journalism from the City University of New York.
Mackenzie McKee is gearing up for the 2022 New York City Marathon to raise awareness for people living with diabetes.
The Teen Mom OG star recently spoke to PEOPLE about being diagnosed as a child with type 1 diabetes — which means her body creates very little or no insulin, requiring medication — and how it pushed her toward prioritizing her health.
"I remember I was really skinny and it was a time in my life where I actually should be gaining weight," McKee, 28, says. "I was hitting puberty, I was 11 and that was when all my friends were getting like hips and stuff and I just kept getting skinnier. And I craved a lot of sugar."
Signs of type 1 diabetes in children tend to develop quickly, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms include weight loss, extreme hunger, increased thirst and frequent urination, fatigue, and behavior changes.
McKee recalls being in middle school and having to use the bathroom about three times an hour. It became so frequent that her teachers gave her detention, assuming she was sneaking out of class to talk to her boyfriend.
"I had to go home and tell my mom, 'Hey, I'm not a troubled kid but I got detention because I'm getting out of class a lot. But I promise, I'm just very thirsty. I have to go to the water fountain and pee three times an hour.' And my mom just froze in her tracks because she knew the symptoms" because McKee's dad had type 1 diabetes. "She looked over at me and was like, 'Oh, no.'"
McKee recalls her mother suggesting their entire family play a "game" and check their blood sugar. When it got to McKee's turn, the reality star's blood sugar was over 600, which she calls "coma-level" high.
"I ran to the bathroom and my siblings held me and they were saying it's okay, it could have been a fluke, you're going to be fine," she recalls. "My mom was standing in the doorway on the phone with the doctor and all I heard her say was, 'We'll be right there.' And she drove me to the hospital and I was diagnosed right on the spot. It was one of the worst days of my life."
Knowing about type 1 diabetes through her dad's condition made her own diagnosis worse, McKee admits, because she "knew how bad it was" and didn't want to deal with the daily struggles. It was tough to be a kid with diabetes.
But later in her teen years she started to finally prioritize her health when she became pregnant at 16. Her son Gannon "saved my life," she says.
"I was going downhill fast. I was a teenager, I didn't want to take care of myself, I was hormonal, I had a brother who passed away during that time. It was just a lot," she recalls. "And then I got pregnant and they told me, 'Your child will die or you will die if you don't learn to take care of yourself.' "
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While managing diabetes has been an ongoing learning experience, McKee, who is now mom to Gannon, 11, Broncs Weston, 6, and Jaxie Taylor, 8, says it’s taught her a lot about health and fitness, which ultimately inspired her to create her online fitness business, Body by Mac.
Her diabetes journey is also part of the reason the reality star is preparing to run the the 2022 TCS New York City Marathon with Beyond Type 1, a platform for those diagnosed with type 1 diabetes to share their stories.
McKee says that she’s never been a serious runner and prefers 5k races, but she’s participating in the marathon in honor of her late mother Angie Douthit, who died in December 2019 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer.
"When my mom got sick, she was going to run a half marathon with my sister. And I was like, well, she can't now so I'll run it with you. And then I caught the running bug," McKee explaines. "So I've done three half marathons and I told myself, that's my limit. I'll never run a full."
"My mom and sister always dreamed of running the New York or Boston Marathon, but they knew you had to qualify, it's really hard, you have to pay a lot of money. And so that was just a dream tucked in the back of their head," she adds.
Now, McKee and her sister — who was also recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes — will be part of the nearly 50 people joining the organization’s “Beyond Type Run” team during the New York marathon in celebration of November’s National Diabetes Awareness Month.
"We're living out our mom's dream and it's a very emotional experience for us. And also I'm not around a lot of type 1 diabetics so getting to meet 50 other people in America who have a passion for living healthy and living with diabetes, it's really exciting," McKee says. "And I just know that crossing the finish line is going to be one of the most emotional experiences ever."
Ahead of taking on the 26.2 miles on Nov. 6, the Teen Mom star thinks she's mastered the "mental game" that comes with preparing for a marathon with diabetes.
"It's just one foot in front of the other," she tells PEOPLE. "I had to get on a CGM, which is a continuous glucose monitor. I have to know at what mile my blood sugar starts dropping. I have to learn to run with food and what foods work best. It's a lot."
McKee says she recognizes that many type 1 diabetics are following her story and she wants to show that she's not limited by the disease.
"I have a lot of moms whose children are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and they think that they can't chase their dreams or do whatever they want," McKee says. "I want to raise awareness of how important it is to stay on top of it and stay healthy, work out and eat healthy, but also that you can do anything you want."
"My mom always said this one quote to me, she said, 'You have diabetes, but diabetes does not have you.' And that sticks with me every single day."


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