The Language of Sickness

Emma Crouch takes us through the painful journey of learning a new language when a family member falls ill

by Emma Crouch

‘They’re going to remove the right testicle on Thursday. Just take the whole thing out.’ I am standing at the top of the entrance to Victoria underground, Monday’s commute in full swing, struggling to hear what my Dad is saying against the station announcements and the hustle of bodies. ‘Just in case they say, a lesion showed up on the ultrasound; better to be safe than sorry.’

A lady in a bright red coat asks me to watch her bag as she struggles down the steps with the other one. I rest my hand lightly on it, steadying myself from the onslaught.

‘I can get a fake one put back in if I want. I don’t know though, I’m not really sure what the point would be at 68.’


The over-sharing of the single older parent snaps me back, he is apologising for messing up the celebratory dinner plans this Sunday, booked when the ‘all-clear’ prostrate biopsy results had come through. All of us studiously ignoring that this other appointment was still to come.

I try to keep my voice even. ‘We can always rebook. See how you’re feeling anyway, you never know.’

When the first call came from my dad a few months previously, it felt like the realisation of something I had been waiting for; that the phrase ‘high PSA levels’ coming down the line was an inevitability, as if his mouth forming round those words had been lines written long ago. I knew the language of these conversations already, their rhythms and cadence, the rote of questions re-emerging like a familiar shroud as soon as those fateful words were spoken, ‘they want to do a few tests’. I knew that wringing hands was fruitless, but that you did it anyway; that this would now be the undercurrent to conversations, the extra edge to daily life; and that a new set of schedules and results would now be stored and memorised. I knew that all you can be is hopeful, taking each appointment, treatment and fresh slew of information as it came.

Since then it has been a time of waiting for phone calls and texts, the purgatory of the child who moved away. On the day of his appointment to get the post-operation CT scan results, I am walking down the street, phone grabbed tightly in one hand, ringer on loud for once, every muscle waiting for that vibration. Finally his voice is on the other end of the line, sounding exuberant. The connection is bad and I can hear the echo of my voice asking, ‘Are you ok? What did they say?’

I find it hard to muster the positive response that is expected to ‘It hasn’t spread, but one round of chemo, just incase. Ninety per cent probability goes up to ninety-six per cent.’ These numbers don’t mean anything to me, they made no difference during earlier appointments, and the dry blue of the chemo ward with its steady symphony of bleeps is all around me as I stop in the street, carefully modulating my voice to convey calm, to who I’m not sure. Sickness is in my belly and everything is tight. It takes me a while after hanging up to realise that it was light coming down the phone, some clouds are in the distance, yes, but hopefully they will break up, scatter away on the wind, changing from menacing lumps to shapeless memories.

Then begins the texting, spreading news across continents, those first timid steps to ‘it might be ok’. There is an innocence lost though, when you learn the language of sickness. When you have used it since childhood for the young, for the mothers and the aunts, your little brothers friend, stepdads, teachers and your 12-year-old sister. When those dear to you become shrunken bald-headed figures, picking at food and falling deep into a darkness you’re not sure can ever be pierced. When conversations have revolved around white blood cell counts, endless temperature readings, the magic 38C and antibacterial gel. Blankets and mouth wash, soft scarves, turbans and wigs. Steroids, anti-sickness tablets, cannulas, neutropenia, consultants and the next appointment. Always the next appointment.

It is a language I wish I was not fluent in, but ultimately I am glad I know the dialect, that I can understand the jargon enough to read between the lines as each doctor speaks about the person I love. And that I can then guide others through this vernacular, until the gibberish is gentler and the terminology doesn’t sound so terminal.

Emma Crouch | @isayRAAR |

Emma Crouch is a storyteller using film and writing. With a natural curiosity to explore the world around her, she can be found helping others stretch their narrative out into the cosmos, or playing with words to help make sense of the subtleties of life.