Musings About the Language of ALS

Dagmar Munn avatar

by Dagmar Munn |

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During my professional years working in a hospital environment, we had to be familiar with using medical jargon. Some words sounded odd to my nonmedical ears, while others had double meanings. A few favorites I still remember are “idiopathic,” which refers to something with an unknown cause, and “unremarkable,” which is used to describe something that is within normal limits.

Now that I’m living with ALS, I’ve had to learn new terminology, and I’ve been courageous enough to question why.

Are we progressing?

Shortly after I was diagnosed, I was eager to let my neurologist know how well the physical therapist’s home exercise routine was going for me. When the doctor walked into the exam room and asked how I was doing, I smiled broadly and exclaimed, “Great. In fact, I’m progressing!” From the serious look on her face, I immediately realized I had used the wrong choice of words.

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During our discussion, I learned that “progressing” is a negative term and usually used to describe ALS symptoms worsening.

“Well then, I’m improving,” I countered. But being a conservative, serious physician, she took the next few minutes to point out the reality of ALS. Citing the statistical expectation that ALS patients do not improve, she suggested that perhaps I had “plateaued.

But the word “plateau” just didn’t sit well with me. So, I gave it a positive spin and proposed that, “I am maintaining?” She agreed, and we moved on to other matters.


I have several friends who are cancer survivors. So, when I hit the milestone of living with ALS past the two-to-five-year life expectancy, I wondered if I could call myself an ALS survivor.

But when I asked at our ALS support group, I was told ALS survivors are family members who’ve lost a loved one to ALS. The unspoken implication is that all ALS patients die early.

“Well, what if I survive my family members?” I quipped. The leader didn’t have an answer.

Later at home, I did a quick internet search and learned that “the American Cancer Society uses the term cancer survivor to refer to anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer no matter where they are in the course of their disease.”

I think it’s a viewpoint that the ALS medical community should consider adopting as well.

Why? Because over the past few decades, ALS patients have been living much longer than the two-to-five-year prediction. Patients are taking steps to slow the progression of their symptoms with the help of more available treatments and improved assistive medical equipment.

The ALS Association has even updated their website to include the statement: “While the average survival time is three years, about 20 percent of people with ALS live five years, 10 percent will survive 10 years and 5 percent will live 20 years or longer.”

Then there are the patients who ‘don’t have ALS anymore’

Through his study of “ALS reversals,” Dr. Richard Bedlack, founder and director of Duke University’s ALS clinic, has identified 50 patients who had been diagnosed with ALS and now are symptom-free. Are these the true ALS survivors?

The words we use

I believe that what we patients read, say, and tell ourselves matters. It can shape our beliefs and affect our attitudes, expectations, and even our physical health.

We can all help with the evolution of ALS medical jargon to include new ways of describing our health journeys. Let’s all become “unremarkable” patients, and hope the words “rehabilitation” and “recovery” will be added to every future ALS conversation.

Better yet, let’s live well in a world without any ALS.

Note: ALS News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ALS News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ALS.


Luke J Kelly avatar

Luke J Kelly

I couldn't agree more- Great article.
I think what might help is if you share some tips on how you've "maintained".
I'm sure keeping busy with your news articles is one thing but, what is the exercise routine that
your physical therapist gave you? Are there other things you could share?

Dagmar Munn avatar

Dagmar Munn

Luke, I am happy to share what I do to maintain - - but first, let me suggest you check out my personal blog ALS and Wellness Blog, where I have been posting tips and motivation for others with ALS. Many of my posts address specific issues, and I index them here:

My exercise routine/s have been evolving. I plan to share them in future articles. Thank you for the nudge ;-)

Debra Mazzarelli avatar

Debra Mazzarelli

Thank you for printing this. Silly as it may sound, my dentist of 39 years is also one of the people I care about in this world more than anyone. Recently diagnosed,I thought he had little time left, and the man I spent visiting at least once every three months (who saved my teeth and me!).
What do we say to loved ones who we just want to stay in touch with and let them know we are praying for them and scientific solutions?
I’m ashamed to say I cried and could not control myself on phone when hearing it from him. I want to brighten his days and life with happiness, although I know his family is so supportive of him. Only 66, he motorcycled across USA, skied, swam,helped son with construction projects, read bedtime stories to two autistic grandchildren every night. Worked at dentistry six days a week while always smiling, even though he also cared for an I’ll child of his own.
I admire him, his wife,his kids and want to share it with them.
Thank you.
Debra Mazzarelli

Peter WL Tam avatar

Peter WL Tam

Ms. Munn you are an inspiration. Thanks for your articles and energy.

Dagmar Munn avatar

Dagmar Munn

Thank you Peter!

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