Jennifer Stone Reveals Her Diagnosis Story
The first thing you notice about Jennifer Stone, the 24-year-old actress from Texas best known for her role as Harper Finkle in Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place, is her genuineness. She’s approachable, funny, sweet — authentically herself, much like the best friend she played to Selena Gomez’s character, Alex Russo. The show ran from 2007 to 2012 and had the most views for any Disney season finale with over 10 million tuning in for the live performance. When asked her favorite role, she tells Beyond Type 1, “It’s still Harper,” explaining, “Harper had a tough background and her life wasn’t perfect. She went to the beat of her own drum though. She may have talked funny or had been socially awkward, but it gets to the point when you don’t care. And you’re proud to just be yourself.”
Stone is no stranger to adversity, and in many ways, embodies the same courage as her previous character to be different, unafraid of standing out. Soon after the season finale of the show that she grew up filming and helped shape her into the young adult that she is today, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a chronic autoimmune disease, at the age of 20. She describes her sudden weight gain and blurry vision without any change to her lifestyle. “I couldn’t read street signs,” Stone says. “I couldn’t see your face if you were right in front of me. I knew something was wrong.”
Though not typically a symptom of undiagnosed Type 1 diabetes, the weight gain was due to her body’s stress response to long-term, untreated high blood sugars, a result of Type 1 diabetes when the body kills off its own healthy beta-cells that produce insulin. Without insulin production, a person becomes insulin-dependent, something Stone never imagined as a reality in her life. When asked how she coped, she says, “How you eat an elephant – one bite at a time.” She laughs. “I know it’s a weird metaphor, but I think it sums up overwhelming situations. You put one foot in front of the other; one step at a time, and it’s doable.”
After her diagnosis in March of 2013, Stone left acting to pursue a university degree — something her family highly valued. “I didn’t want to be the only one who hadn’t gotten a degree,” she says. “I also wanted to know if acting was something I really wanted to keep doing because it’s all I’ve known.”
Stone studied psychology first then switched to nursing. “More than learning the semantics of beta-cells and autoimmune disorders,” she says, “I wanted to understand my body and the impact of Type 1.” As much as she loved her science classes though, she says, “Leaving acting reaffirmed my love for it, and I decided to return.”
Stone explains that when she was first diagnosed, she was unable to find any female role models in her industry who talked openly about having Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. It seemed to carry a stigma and that surprised her. “I thought, there has to be someone in the entertainment industry who has made this work,” Stone says. “but since I couldn’t find any actresses talking about it, I figured I could be the one to fill that void.”
At diagnosis, she even had doctors who said that she would need to quit her career and move home; that the stress of Type 1 diabetes would be too much for someone in her field. They are no longer her endocrinologists.
“I think after a few years,” Stone says. “I felt like I found a balance and came to healthy place with it [Type 1] — I am now ready to inspire other people and help make this world a more receptive place for this disease. I think there’s a lot of power in being able to stand up with each other.” It’s for this same reason she joined the Global Ambassador Council of Nick Jonas’s Type 1 diabetes nonprofit Beyond Type 1 — to advocate for others affected by this chronic illness.
She continues, “I can be really private, but with this — it isn’t mine to be private about. Speaking up can help so many people, and they need to know they aren’t alone, and it can happen to anyone. I know how ignorant I was when I was first diagnosed; I want to help the world know more about the disease.”
Perhaps a difficult feat to tackle and especially in her industry, but Stone is used to standing out from the crowd. She reminds me of the episode when Harper was dressed as beef jerky, and explains that the she smelled like a rotting carcass, “because I was one,” she says, “covered in actual jerky.” She laughs. If anyone can help educate Hollywood along with the general public about Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, it’s Stone, who like her character Harper, unabashedly shows the world her authentic self. She wears things no one thinks of to wear and she says things that no one dare say out loud. She’s a disrupter if you will, both aesthetically and socially.
“Before my diagnosis,” she says. “I thought only children got Type 1 diabetes and that both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes were disorders from lifestyle. I’ve since learned that one is metabolic and the other auto-immune, and that you can develop Type 1 at any age. The two disease states are similar in some ways and drastically different in others. One in 11 people in the world are affected by either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes,” Stone says, “and yet most people don’t know the difference between the two or understand either of the diseases. I want to help change that.”
Today, her biggest challenge in managing her Type 1 is stress — elevated stress levels in turn affect her blood sugar levels. “You hear about stress affecting your body,” Stone says, “but when you see it, you actually believe it.” Having a CGM and insulin pump, along with a routine, helps her though — with workouts, diet and sleep. “Sometimes it really sucks,” she says, “to be that disciplined, but when I slack, I see the effects.”
She also talks about what it’s like to have hormones affect blood sugar levels, and that management can be especially difficult during her period. “So that’s great, dealing with periods, which already suck, and now crazy blood sugars.” But she laughs at this and takes it in stride. “My mom and I have a joke that if the sky is the wrong color of blue, my blood sugars will be affected.”
It’s this positivity from Stone that is both affecting and admirable. Even when her actress friends steal her favorite low-snack, a fun-sized bag of Skittles, she adds a sense of levity to the situation with her humor. “I have to tell them, ‘I know you want to eat something sweet that doesn’t make you feel guilty, but come on—I need those!’ There still is a lot to learn.”