People do not necessarily ‘suffer’ from diseases

Actor and strong science advocate Alan Alda recently revealed that he has had Parkinson’s disease for the last three years.

The 82-year-old told the CBS This Morning show he was diagnosed three-and-a-half years ago but had only decided to speak about it now.

“The reason I want to talk about it in public is… I’ve had a full life since then,” he said.

“You still have things you can do,” he went on, revealing he was “taking boxing lessons three times a week.”

Parkinson’s is a progressive condition in which the brain becomes damaged. It can lead to tremors, difficulty moving, speech changes and eventually memory problems.

What struck me in the article was a passage at the very end.

Other celebrities to suffer from the disease include comedian Billy Connolly, who was diagnosed in 2014, and singer Neil Diamond, who announced earlier this year he would retire from touring after a recent diagnosis.

It is common to see reports that someone ‘suffers’ from a disease. But I would venture that most people who have some disease, even serious ones, do not see it as defining their lives. They have come to terms with it and deal with it in their own ways. To say they ‘suffer’ from it is to suggest that the disease dominates their lives and that they see themselves as victims of it, which may not be the case. Like Alda, they continue to live full lives.

There are moves try to use language more sensitively, which I see as a highly positive trend however much reactionaries may deride it as ‘political correctness’. For example, commenter Trickster Goddess wrote in response to a recent post of mine that dealt with Anthony Bourdain and pointed out to me that I had written that he had ‘committed suicide’ and that this language was a relic from the past when suicide was seen as a criminal act. Goddess said that there was a movement nowadays to use instead the phrase ‘died by suicide’. Since then I have noticed this better usage in other articles and I will do so also.

Maybe ‘suffering’ from a disease could also be eased out of common use and replaced by saying that someone ‘has’ a disease.


  1. DonDueed says

    On the other hand, sometimes disease causes cruel suffering indeed.

    Mano, you may recall the church in Lorain where my father was once pastor (and that recently burned down, destroying a historic pipe organ). The Director of Music at that church was a professor of organ music at Oberlin; he would eventually become the Dean of the Conservatory there. He was a superb musician, able to perform the most demanding pieces of the repertoire.

    Like Alda, he too came down with Parkinson’s. Among its earliest symptoms was loss of muscular coordination. In other words, it robbed him of the ability to play the organ. For a musician of his caliber, it’s hard to imagine a disease causing greater suffering.

  2. Holms says

    And on the other other hand (on the foot?), some people might be placing too much importance on the etymological origin of various phrases and their wordings. The commit suicide one comes to mind -- that has not carried any implication of guilt for a long, long time. It has become a neutral phrase.

  3. says

    Likewise with some phrases regarding disability.

    “Confined to” a wheelchair? Nuh, this thing takes me where my legs won’t! “Confined” is what happens when I don’t have my wheels.

    90% of the suffering related to disability is a direct result of society’s refusal to accommodate differences in mobility, vision, or hearing.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @2: It’s not about etymological origins. It’s how we use the word. When we say someone “commits” an act, the act is invariably something that is, or once was, illegal. Commit murder, commit arson, commit atrocities, commit adultery, etc. By the way, I think most people have stopped saying “commit adultery” precisely because we don’t view it as harshly as we once did.

  5. Holms says

    A counter example to your list, is … commit suicide, which no longer has any connotation of guilt. Common use of that construction is not used to mean guilt, and thus the common meaning is not one of guilt. Because meaning is determined solely by common use.

  6. file thirteen says

    To me that usage of “suffer” always meant bear, endure etc. That was probably its original meaning as well.

    The dictionary calls that archaic I see; I feel like it just insulted me.

    It’s also news to me that the word “commit” contains any other connotation than the word “perform”. Can’t you commit an act of kindness?

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