Finding the right word

Disease.

I hate that word.  It conjures up images of the lungs of a chain-smoker, or the liver of an alcoholic.  The kind of images that are shown to grade-school students to teach them to take care of themselves.

Or images of someone who caught some nasty virus or bacteria and now struggles to do the things many of us take for granted.  Someone who, when they board a train, people tend to migrate in the opposite direction, afraid themselves of catching the affliction, which is quite visibly apparent.  Some just can’t bear the sight.

Or maybe it’s just the alliterative similarity to words like “death” or “dying”.  It has a connotation of someone who is sick, or even sickly.  Someone whose existence, at that moment, is hard to justify living.

Search Google Images for the word “disease”.  The results are not pretty.

The word as an “ick” or an “eeeeww” factor to it.

But diabetes is a disease, and it is none of those things.  It’s the body’s inability to produce or use a necessary hormone, so that hormone has to come from external sources.   After that, everything’s fine.

Of course, it’s not that simple.  The big challenge is figuring out the proper amount of that hormone, and getting it in our body, to the right spot, in the right amounts, at the right time, so as to mimic the non-diabetic body’s natural response.  Science hasn’t quite brought us to achieving that “how” yet, but the “what” is quite clear.  And with the tools we’ve got and a bit of effort, we can come pretty darn close.

There are some of us who go about life appearing quite healthy, complication-free.  People see me, and before they learn of my diabetes, they have no idea of this extra life-baggage that I carry with me.  They say I look perfectly healthy.  Certainly not diseased.

Sometimes, I read about another word to describe diabetes: condition.  That word is certainly more gentle-sounding, and for me is easier to say and hear, but it’s not quite accurate.  A condition is a term that makes a very broad generalization.  Someone may have a heart condition.  Others may have a skin condition.  But does that mean anything?  No.  Dick Clark suffered from a stroke, not a “brain condition”.  Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s, not a “tremor condition”.  Diabetes is a very specific circumstance that has a very specific cause, effect, and treatment.  (We don’t understand why it happens, but we do know what it does and what we have to do to  about it).

When I blog, sometimes I struggle to come up with the right words.  But there are two recurring themes that give me trouble.  First is whether or not to use the term “diabetic” (you’ll see I used it a few paragraphs up, but rarely else on this blog).  In general, I find it acceptable as an adjective but not as a noun, but I’ll discuss that another time.  Second, is to find another term to describe diabetes.

Is diabetes a disease?  The truth of the matter is that, yes, it is.  A terminal one at that.  This disease is not contagious and it’s not (visibly) ugly, but the connotation of the word sure suggests that.

It’s why I hate to use that word.  But I’m not sure what else to call it.

Any suggestions? I’m at a loss for words.

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Posted on June 19, 2012, in Diabetes and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I understand. I have the same problem. Sickness. Disease. Illness. Condition. It’s all weird to me. And none of them are entirely accurate. I know I fall under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but I hate being thought of as disabled.
    I sometime wonder if people living with other chronic illness have the same issues.

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    • Oh how I hate to summon the ADA when I bring food into an otherwise “no-outside-food-allowed” place, or when I request an exit from a business meeting that’s running through lunchtime. I’m sure the ADA was created with the mobility/hearing/sight-impaired in mind, but like anything else, it reaches farther, touching some of us who really don’t care to be touched by it. (I think there’s another act that addresses that one!)

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    • Hmm… that’s a possibility, but to me “syndrome” defines a set of loosely connected symptoms without a full understanding of why they occur. A person who has it may show signs of one, some, or all of those symptoms. It’s also usually also part of the name of the.. uh.. syndrome (i.e. Down Syndrome, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, etc). Again, just my perception, not necessarily medically accurate.

      My brother has Angelman Syndrome and at age 35, has nearly every symptom in the book. He is generally described by his abilities and behavior (doesn’t talk, very emotional, uncoordinated, basically a 2 or 3-year old in a 35-year old’s body). Since Angelman affects everyone differently, we can’t just give it a name and people understand it. Also, we try to treat/medicate him for the symptoms, since there’s nothing to be done with the cause. We don’t even understand the cause, he was just lumped together with others like him and given an overarching banner name.

      I think Syndrome might have been appropriate in the early days of diabetes (translation: sweet urine, if I’ve got it right): someone who is often thirsty, tired, and pees a lot, but now that we know all we know about insulin, I think we may have graduated past the “syndrome” stage.

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  2. After reading this I realized that I rarely refer to diabetes as a disease. I just use diabetes as a noun in and of itself. My husband has it, and when we talk about it we don’t call it a disease or disorder. I was looking through my blog and can’t see where I’ve called it a disease specifically, though I referred to my bipolar as a disease and disorder in one of them. Maybe there is no better word besides diabetes. It sounds a little lazy, but that’s really the only thing I can think of about it.

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    • I find myself using it, or wanting to use it, in the context of comparing diabetes to other [fill-in-the-blank]s. Where the blank is obviously the word that I’m trying to come up with here.

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  3. I agree. I’ve used the word disease several times in my blogging .. and I always find myself twinging a bit when I say/type it. Bottom line it IS a disease. But to me, that word has such a different connotation associated with it.

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  4. Thought-provoking post, Scott! I use disease, simply because it sounds “best” or most accurate of all the other options. Many years ago, I recall the JDRF or some organization trying to get away from using the word disease, and using “disorder” instead. Never cared for that, myself. I just go with disease, or sometimes refer to it as a “condition of the pancreas.” Because, you know… it is. Thanks for writing this!!

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    • Disorder is an interesting one. It implies something (the pancreas) isn’t working right, as opposed to something just decaying, which is a bit more correct. But it almost seems a bit vague to me, almost in the same sense as “condition.” Disorder also tends to commonly be used in a behavioral sense, as in “attention-deficit disorder”, while the effects diabetes has on behavior are more secondary in nature (the primary effects being low/high blood sugar or pent-up frustration).

      Maybe I’ll never find the term that pleases me. It could just be a matter of pride, or maybe even — dare I say it — denial.

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  5. Well said. I do use “disease” and “condition” but they never seem like quite the right fit. But I haven’t come up with anything better. You’ve inspired me to start giving it some more thought though.

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