By Morhaf Al Achkar, MD, PhD
It was November 2016 when I developed stage 4 lung cancer, and my life had not been the same since the diagnosis. That same month, Trump became president. His election was more shocking to me than my cancer. When I received the news of my cancer, my first thought was, “I am not an exception. People get cancer, and I am one of the people.” But when Trump was elected, I said, “This is impossible!” And starting that sad month, the two events became intertwined. Three months later, I wrote an article, published at the Huffington Post, and said, “Mr. Trump, you are cancer, and I only live if you shrink.” I drafted that piece not knowing if I would last much longer. I wanted to speak the truth — all the truth — at once.
I shared about living with what I perceived then as a terminal illness. I reflected on being a doctor and a teacher, then a cancer patient. The disease awakened my sense of self as a vulnerable human. It also brought out my authentic self. As a Syrian immigrant affected by the ban on Muslims, I had fears that I might not be able to say goodbye to family. I wanted people to put a human face on the suffering because of Trump’s inhumane politics. The ban on refugees had affected countless people. Often, their stories were left unheard. I shared my story to tell theirs.
When I came out, I was overwhelmed with support. Still, some people commented, “Why doesn’t he leave the country to see his family?” “What is he doing here, anyway? He should go and die in Syria!” These odd voices were few and far between, so I treated them with sympathy, the sympathy someone has toward those diseased with callousness in their soul.
I reflect on these comments now as the attack on immigrants has reached unprecedented levels. Over the past 2 1/2 years, we have seen immigrant children in cages, immigrant children dying in the water or deserts, immigrant women being told to drink from the toilets, ICE terrorizing immigrant communities with threats of deportation, and worst of all, “If you are complaining all the time, if you are not happy here, you can leave!” This message from Trump is so dangerous because speaking truth to power is our only protection from all his atrocities. He wants to silence his critics and alienate them as if they do not have the same rights or do not belong to this place.
What Trump does to immigrants and people of color has crossed the line. This attack on the marginalized and vulnerable is personal to me. I had left Syria because I heard that same “advice” from the tyrannical regime there. Several of my friends stayed, and many died to free our country from tyranny and to bring dignity to humans. As I continue to live now, a life I do not take for granted, I am an immigrant and citizen of the United States — this is my home. I will make this a better place for myself and, more importantly, for those coming after, and I will never leave. It is time to tell Trump that this is enough.
What Trump does to immigrants and people of color has crossed the line.
Two and a half years ago, I wrote the letter to Trump, and if I had it to do over again, I would say the same things. He is a cancer, and he needs to shrink. I meant what I said because he is a narcissist, and the cure for those like him is to deflate the massive ego that is inflicted with inferiorities. I also said it because, like cancer, his values threaten to kill everything moral and humane in our country and beyond. Cancer is nasty, and when it spreads, it becomes an existential threat. Those parasitic cells of ours going rogue drain our energy and suck our life. Cancer sucks. And so does Trump. He sucks badly. I take my cancer chemotherapy treatment every day, and it has worked to keep the disease in check. But we have failed to hold Trump’s power in check, and that is dangerous.
I have lived with my cancer. I learned to find meaning in empowering others to build resilience while living with theirs. I have dedicated my life since the diagnosis to listening to cancer patients and telling their stories to help them find meaning with cancer. I also wanted to help distill strategies they can use to cope. I wrote a book, “Roads to Meaning and Resilience with Cancer,” and by helping others, I helped myself. That is also how I have dealt with Trump’s presidency. For weeks at a time, I would close myself off from the startling news so I could avoid hearing his creepy messages. I tried to find solidarity with communities injured by his hate. I maintained hope that this nightmare would end. I wrote the article hoping that things would change, but I braced for living with his presidency, knowing that things might get worse. Actually, if I were to write that piece again, I would probably correct a few errors.
My biggest mistake is that I treated Trump like a person with the capacity for empathy and understanding. I attempted to tell my story as if he could take the position of the other and feel what others feel. But Trump lacks both understanding and empathy, and I should have known that. I also used the word “authentic” to describe his representation. That was another big mistake. Trump knows what the base wants to hear and keeps regurgitating the vomit of other deviants in society. And that has nothing to do with authenticity. To be authentic is to be truthful to oneself, first and foremost, and Trump was never truthful to anyone. My third and most significant mistake was using dialogue as the framework. We know in medicine and sociology that when someone is so far gone in their pathology, the first step is to protect others by removing the harm. This rule is especially true if the disease is counter to the essence of what is social and human in us. An ideal society would put those individuals away, often in prison, before they receive correction and rehabilitation.
I did a few things well in that piece, though. I was authentic throughout, and that helped me regain my voice as a person. Yes, I was tired of battling cancer, but writing had given me the empowerment I needed. I claimed a new identity, and that was healing. I also asserted my position, which I still hold to this moment to be right: Trump is not a legitimate president, and he never will be. Because the Electoral College chose him, I believed he could legally be president. But because Trump lacks moral character and never represented the voice of the majority, I argued that he is not a legitimate president.
Another thing I did right is that, while I spoke to him as if he is a person who understands, I was prepared to make the shift in framework. I asserted that people should reclaim their voice if he does not correct his behavior.
Now, it is time for people to do just that before it is too late.
Dear fellow Americans, Trump is cancer. But we can have a cure if he is removed.
When we deal with a narcissist or sociopath, whether in society, the medical field, or behind bars, we ought to hold to our preset boundaries. Boundaries are what Trump systematically attacks when he undermines the law and our legal institutions. As an immigrant and a person of color, I have experienced prejudice countless times. In the past, people have said things that, to my ears, were racist and xenophobic. At times, the comments were blunt, and at other times, the prejudice was subtle in appearance and yet profound in impact. I no longer tolerate such aggression. I learned to call out what is unjust, and I learned to push back to maintain my boundaries. We all need to do that. We can do it as a society by putting in place more regulations to criminalize behaviors that are not acceptable. There need to be consequences to peoples’ actions.
I have survived 2 1/2 years with stage 4 cancer, and the journey was anything but easy. Our country’s journey with Trump has also been very painful. Can we say we survived? I am not sure. His damaging effects are deeply profound, and they are only getting more serious. There is still daunting uncertainty about what will come next. I know this uncertainty, and it scares me. My cancer can progress at any time. So can the atrocities that come from Trump. Things are bad now, and yes, they can be much worse. In fact, they will get much worse if we do not resist. I live an urgency, and I sense that I am running out of time. I need to say these words before it is too late. We cannot take another four years with Trump. I live with cancer because I have no choice. But we have the option of not living with Trump. I wrote a letter two years ago, but I addressed it to the wrong recipient. I am rewriting my article. Instead of declaring, “Dear Mr. Trump,” I now say, “Dear fellow Americans, Trump is cancer. But we can have a cure if he is removed.” Indeed, by electing someone who is positioned to heal the country, we can cure the disease plaguing our country.