The Language of Diabetes: Is it a “Chronic Illness”, a “Disease”, or a “Condition”?

What would you say if someone asked you to identify diabetes as one of the following: 1) a chronic illness, 2) a disease, or 3) a condition?

My response would be…it’s not so clear-cut for me. It’d change depending on how I felt about my diabetes at a given moment in time.

What word(s) would you use to identify diabetes?

So for example, on the days when diabetes dominates all of my thoughts and emotions with its unrelenting nature, I’d be more inclined to call it a chronic illness. On those occasions, my diabetes seems determined to remind me that it’s not going anywhere, and that I’d better just accept that it’s here to stay.

But when diabetes is straight-up pissing me off – say because of a medical device failure or a stubborn high blood sugar that won’t come down – I’d call it a disease. It seems to be a fitting title for something that’s acting in a disordered nature, and goodness knows it infuriates me to no end when the elements of diabetes that I can more usually control act out unpredictably.

And then it’s when diabetes and I are just mutually co-existing. I’m aware of it, and it’s aware of me, but it doesn’t have the ability to impact my emotions like it does when it’s behaving more like a chronic illness or a disease. When diabetes is my condition, I have it – it doesn’t have me.

I could be reaching a bit here with my musings on associating diabetes with different words, but truly, language is powerful in diabetes (and really, in all aspects of life). Words and phrases have connotations and significance depending on the contexts in which they’re used, making their endless combinations utterly fascinating. Because of this, I believe that examining the specific language around diabetes is extremely interesting as I think about the ways I describe my own diabetes experience and how that involves my emotions.

And what’s really cool is that there’s no right or wrong way about the words I choose to use regularly around my diabetes because it’s my story to tell. Here’s a friendly reminder that the same applies to you, too.


Why Word Choice Matters to a Person with Diabetes

Read the following five sentences. Can you tell what’s wrong with them?

  1. She’s a diabetic.
  2. He’s testing his blood sugar right now.
  3. Her diabetes is out of control!
  4. Isn’t that a really bad blood sugar?
  5. He suffers from diabetes.

Have you figured it out?

The language in those five sentences is extremely negative. “Bad,” “out of control,” and “suffers” are obviously gloomy and cynical words to use when referring to diabetes – you don’t need to be a wordsmith make that connection immediately. But what’s wrong with “diabetic” or “testing”? It’s the connotations around those words. Calling someone with diabetes a “diabetic” is labeling them with the disease and removing the actual person from the equation. Saying that a person with diabetes is “testing” their blood sugar makes it sound so…clinical. It also implies that the person could pass or fail the so-called test, adding pressure and guilt to the situation.

Choose your words wisely.

In my real-world, full-time job, I’m an editor, so it gives me great pleasure to amend those above sentences into more positive, empowering language:

  1. She has diabetes.
  2. He’s checking his blood sugar right now.
  3. She’s having a tough time managing her diabetes.
  4. How do you handle high or low blood sugar?
  5. He lives with diabetes. (Or even better: He THRIVES with diabetes.)

Ah, much better. Never underestimate the power of words.