The Phoenix Zine

Medical Terminology: What is Chronic Illness?


This is my first medical terminology post. I intend for this section to explore terms related to chronic illness and explain medical procedures and results. Once I decided that, the logical term to explore first was chronic illness itself.

There are two words to describe the longevity of an illness: acute and chronic. Acute illnesses can be severe and often short term, such as a cold, the chicken pox or the flu. Chronic illness is characterised by being ongoing, whether the illness lasts for a few months or a lifetime. Diabetes, cancer and asthma are all considered chronic, for example.

At times the terms are intermixed, a person who has an acute illness can develop a chronic illness as a result, and those who have chronic illness can also have bouts of acute illness.

The word illness itself is more difficult to define and I have great trouble even trying to pin it down. I don’t view myself as being sick or ill, yet I have a diagnosed chronic illness. People who I’ve asked to answer the ten questions for me have refused, saying they aren’t affected by their own chronic illnesses. Is this because people genuinely believe they aren’t affected by their illnesses, or fear of being labeled?

There was a time when I too felt I was not affected by my chronic illness although I would be reminded of it when I had doctors’ appointments and bloodwork. Other than that taking drugs on a daily basis was just a normal part of my life.

However, life situations that feel normal can still cause problems. Over the years I became more aware of just how difficult life with a chronic illness is. Even though I had some friends with similar medical experiences we didn’t really talk much about them because “…to be with a person who is anguished is to risk experiencing the cry that is way down deep inside each of us.” (1) It was easier to cope with being chronically ill if I didn’t have to think about it or focus on my feelings.

As for the fear of being labeled, there is a stigma and fear connected to being ill in any form. Expectations of the people in question are lowered, and sometimes the contributions people who are ill can make to society are overlooked. Patricia Deegan writes in an article called “Recovering our sense of value after being labeled mentally ill” that “there are people whose contribution we are able to see and value and there are those whose gifts we have failed to see and have failed to value.” (1)

Although Deegan intends the article to be for people with mental illness, there are ideas that are also of value to people with chronic illness. She writes “It is important to understand that we are faced with recovering not just from (mental) illness, but also from the effects of being labeled (mentally) ill.”

As people with chronic illness, we must strive to show others the term does not have to be negative. There should be no reason to be ashamed of having a chronic illness or to see the disclosure of it as a liability and only we who have experience with chronic illness will be able to change those views. I encourage you to find your own way to contribute to society and to raise awareness about what life with chronic illness is actually like.

1. Deegan, P. Recovering Our Sense of Value After Being Labeled Mentally Ill. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing 1993; 31; 4:7-11.

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