As the narrator of the new diabetes documentary A Touch of Sugar, Viola Davis spoke with PEOPLE about the disease that's affected her life

By Hanna Flanagan
May 01, 2019 04:26 PM

Viola Davis has an Oscar, an Emmy and a Golden Globe — on-screen, she’s a force. But offscreen, the How to Get Away with Murder star has been battling a prediabetes diagnosis since August 2016.

Now Davis is opening up to PEOPLE about living with the condition, along with her family’s history of diabetes and why she’s determined to fight the disease that affects millions of Americans each year.

Davis, 53, teamed up with Merck on America’s Diabetes Challenge to narrate the documentary A Touch of Sugar, which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and aims to confront the crisis head-on. When she heard about the project, Davis says she knew she had to be a part of it.

“It hit home for me,” Davis tells PEOPLE. “It’s something that’s an ongoing conversation in my life. My two sisters have Type 2 Diabetes, my great aunt had Type 2 Diabetes. (She) lost both of her legs and was in a wheelchair for decades, up until she finally succumbed to the disease. As did my grandmother on my father’s side.”

From maintaining a healthy weight and following a balanced diet to exercising regularly and educating herself about the disease, Davis did everything she could to avoid the diagnosis herself. But it wasn’t enough. After a routine A1C blood test, Davis’ doctor told her that her blood sugar levels were high — not high enough to be considered Type 2 Diabetes, but high enough for concern.

Brian Bowen Smith

She was diagnosed with prediabetes, which Dr. Rekha Kumar, an endocrinologist at New York Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, defines as “a hormonal or medical condition that puts somebody at risk of diabetes…it implies some amount of risk that an individual will develop the disease.” According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 84 million Americans (or one in every three) will receive the diagnosis. Still, the Oscar-winner says she felt alone when she heard the news.

“I actually didn’t even know what to do, I have to say,” Davis says. “I felt like I didn’t have a lot of resources. I consider myself to be a healthy eater, I exercise, I do it all.”

Viola Davis and her daughter, Genesis Tennon
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

But Dr. Kumar says there is more education that needs to be done. While lifestyle is definitely a contributing factor, she says people who have a first-degree relative with Type 2 Diabetes, people who are over 45 years old, and people who are of certain ethnic backgrounds like African-American, Hispanic, South Asian and American Indian also have an increased chance of being diagnosed with prediabetes.

For more of Davis’ story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

For more on Viola Davis’ prediabetes diagnosis and diabetes in America, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Brian Doben

“Genetics are a big factor,” Kumar told PEOPLE. “But I always tell my patients that their biology is not their destiny. Despite having these risk factors, there’s ways that we can prevent or delay the onset of prediabetes or diabetes.”

In the wake of her prediabetes diagnosis, Davis has rededicated her time and energy to her health. Her biggest motivation is her 8-year-old daughter Genesis, who she shares with husband Julius Tennon, 65.

“I want to be around for my daughter,” Davis says. “I want to stay healthy for as long as I can for her.”

From left, Deloris Grant, Viola Davis, Genesis Tennon and Julius Tennon
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Davis added that she and her sisters with Type 2 — Dianne Davis-Wright and Deloris Grant — have grown even closer, bonding over their shared struggle to manage the disease. In fact, Davis says her admiration for her sisters is what prompted her to narrate A Touch of Sugar in the first place. She wants to acknowledge that a Type 2 diagnosis “shifted their lives” but also wants to make it known that both are doing everything they can to maintain good health.

“[Diabetes] has affected them in different ways, in terms of the symptoms they’ve had,” Davis says. “But the thing that’s even more important is that they’re managing it. They have tackled it. They’re not just watching it and sitting by.”