Since our thoughts, judgments, decisions and actions are shaped by our language, it is curious why so many spend so little time considering the words they use.  This is especially true for illness, a universal human condition.  Sooner or later, we will all be called to play a role in someone's illness story. The way we play that role, the words we use or don't use, may alleviate or accentuate the suffering of that illness.

“Illness is described in a language which differs from the language of doctors.  The language of illness is simple and honest; it's time to consider the language we use to reflect the personal nature of illness” says Dr Fergus Shanahan, author of a new book called The Language of Illness, launched on September 17th. This is a most timely discussion of illness, as the world grapples with the Covid pandemic and its aftermath.

In this highly original, Dr Fergus Shanahan, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at University College Cork and founding Director of APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre at UCC ,  an eminent gastroenterologist who has practised in Ireland, the United States and Canada, and published widely around the world, outlines the lessons we can learn from a better understanding of the words we use to describe illness. Inspired by APC’s hugely successful “The Experience of Illness” symposium with associated “Living/Loss ; the Experience of Illness in Art” exhibition at the Glucksman Gallery and over 40 year’s medical experience,  Shanahan looks at the portrayal of illness in literature and proposes practical ways in which we can dismantle the language barriers which have been built up in regard to illness.

Like the great American poet-doctor William Carlos Williams, Prof Shanahan aims to help us develop a new language – to help us live with illness, which is as much a part of the human condition as being born. The Language of Illness is a deeply humane and moving book which, as the author puts it himself, is written for “all those who care about caring”.

“This book is a treasure, compulsory and compulsive reading for everyone in the caring way – and isn’t that all of us? Caring, or being cared for. Doctor Shanahan, with precision, humour and concern, examines ‘the words that turn people into patients . . . healing words, hurting words’. He demonstrates, with wisdom and learning and humanity, how patient and doctor, speaking the same language, work better together. . . . An accessible, inviting book: warm, empathetic and deeply compassionate.” ––John F. Deane is a poet, and founder of Poetry Ireland and the Dedalus Press

“In his excellent book, Prof. Fergus Shanahan provides an important explanation for the frequent failure of generally well-intentioned medics to provide a better caring experience for their patients. Beyond the carefully and elegantly constructed arguments, it provides a wonderful anthology of writing about life, health, dying and caring. It should be on the mandatory reading list for students of medicine, nursing and all caring professions, and will be of enormous interest to patients and their family members.” ––Prof. John Crown is consultant medical oncologist at St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Dublin

The Language of Illness is published in Ireland by Liberties Press where it's available to purchase online. The World French-language rights have been acquired by Éditions Les Arènes, Paris. 

APC Microbiome Ireland was delighted to host a virtual launch of this book, via Microsoft Teams, on Thursday, September 17th. A recording of the event can be viewed below: