knew it in November, 2016. I knew it in November, 2016. I knew it throughout the Trump administration. I knew it while reading the menacing claims made during the Conservative Political Action Conference; and I know it now.
If you’re angry, frightened, exhausted, or broke, don’t be surprised: I am a cancer survivor of 13 years, and I am here to tell you that life in the U.S.A. with the Trump administration had strong similarities to living through the disease—including the aftereffects, which the nation is experiencing at this time.
The Trump era was akin to what is called “early stage” cancer. By early, doctors mean “not stage 4”—that is, it’s a cancer that has not spread from its location of origin; but then again it could, at any time. One of the first tasks when you’re diagnosed with cancer is to figure out what stage the disease has reached and what other properties it has—for example, what might fuel its spread.
You’re trying to gather information and figure out how to stem this potential disaster, all while in a good degree of shock. Then, when you finally finish treatment, you’re going to feel precarious across the board: your resources strained or utterly depleted, your previous sanguine assumptions shot.
And you’re tired. Cue 2021.
The Trump-cancer parallels were evident immediately, with the stunning result of the 2016 election. The diagnosis. You knew it was possible, but you didn’t think it would happen. You’d been looking forward to celebrating the all-clear result—the not-Trump decision—but suddenly you had to accept a different outcome. When I was told I had cancer, my first words to the doctor were, “Are you kidding me?”
She was not.
Then, the rallying: This is for real. The questions became, How are you going to treat it? How can you organize to address it? What team will you assemble?
About said team: In cancer and in politics, people you thought you knew can truly surprise you. We’ve all seen it. Perhaps they decided that you being sick was too unpleasant for them to face, or they concluded that trampling the Emoluments Clause was acceptable. Maybe they dropped out of contact when you needed them most; maybe they didn’t blink when the president enacted a “Muslim ban.” They might even have called your hopes of support unreasonable; they might have started muttering talking points from QAnon (which the president refused to disavow).
Your bonds with some members of your former “life team” fully fractured, and you wonder if they will ever be repaired. (If those loved ones ended up howling about their own needs while you faced cancer, or joined the rioting horde in the Capitol, the answer is no.) On the other hand, you’ve made new connections. You’re screening calls from your cousin Willa, who insists to this day that Donald Trump just needed time to launch a healthcare plan; but your co-worker’s Coffee and Resistance Slack channel has become a bright light in your life.
Each day held the potential to be a heavy slog; many felt terrifying or at best surreal. You tried to keep your spirits up. You tried to live your normal life (until the pandemic, anyway). But fear and anger were constants, and nothing felt normal. You had cancer; a man who labeled the free press an enemy was president.
It was hard to avoid panicking at every ache and twinge, every Tweet: “Is this it? Is the cancer spreading?" "Is this president bumbling and blustering the planet into un-mendable disaster?” With environmental regulations erased and toxins spilling rapidly into our oceans, the worry was realistic.
And what can we say about sex? For millions worldwide, cancer and the thought of Donald Trump present challenges to a healthy sex life. Surgeries, hair loss, fatigue, nausea, and a president credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults can destroy one’s willingness to be touched at all.
Patience, determination, and creativity all help; but the Trump years cast a sexual chill—another difficulty to face.
Some days are worse in cancer treatment, and some are better. The first Trump impeachment process felt like powerful medicine; the Senate offered a chance for removal of the malignancy, but it didn’t pan out. You told yourself that it was OK in the long run. Maybe the standard removal operation would be the better bet—as long as it was a success.
When you have cancer, you need to be all the more careful about exposure to viruses and bacteria. The disease—and, to be fair, some of its treatments—render you more vulnerable to certain risks. Enter COVID-19.
Trump was the cancer weakening our national immune system; he even admitted on tape that he’d deliberately downplayed the danger of the virus to avoid “panic,” by which it seems he meant economic disturbance. (Spoiler: This did not work.) Before the pandemic, he’d diminished our country’s willingness to cooperate or to unify for the general good.
So the U.S.A. and, say, Taiwan walked through a crowded concert venue (remember those?). Whatever contagions were floating around, Taiwan had a better chance of fending them off than the U.S.A. did—because the U.S.A. had cancer.
Finally, here you are. Your surgery is done, and it went the way it needed to. But the cancer required a more invasive procedure than originally anticipated, and you experienced significant post-surgical complications. A violent insurrection is a similar “complication” to something like a post-surgical septic infection. It’s entirely possible to die from one of those. You didn’t, but you could have, and again the truth of your vulnerability was impossible to ignore.
Now, you have to keep up with post-surgery appointments, do the exercises prescribed to promote healing, and keep your surgical site free of further infection. In other words, it’s time to take deep breaths and do the hard work of shifting the country onto a functional path.
The effects of crises don’t disappear overnight. Your life has irrevocably changed. The sight of a medical waiting room/Ivanka will make you feel queasy for many years. Rebuilding strength will take time.
Remission, especially in its early days, can be hard to trust. That’s where we are now. Memories of the trauma you’ve experienced mesh with the obvious fact that this situation is not in your control. It happened once; it could happen again.
Cancer can return. Donald Trump could, it turns out, try to run again in 2024; or some cannier version of him could show up instead.
But knowledge, in these cases, truly is power. The more you understand about how this cancer/presidency happened, the better prepared you’ll be to take early protective measures in the future. And never forget: You and your country have survived thus far. Bolstered by lessons from the past, renewed determination, and an accountable government, you’ll walk a little taller every day—knowing if you lived through cancer/Trump — you’re prepared to face anything.