Living with Cancer

Yes, I know that cancer and terrorism are not exactly the same, but as a systems philosopher/scientist, there are direct analogues at every level of complex systems.
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The first sign that something might be wrong was a message from my GP saying that she wanted me to repeat a blood test that I had just taken as part of my annual physical. Upon getting the same results, she sent me a follow-up message saying that she wanted to talk with me in person. This was enough to raise my anxieties. After all, why would she want to see me if she didn't have bad news?

As soon as my GP got in the exam room and sat down, I asked her right away, "Is it something bad?" To which she replied, "I don't know for sure, but it could be." She explained that I had an elevated level of protein in my blood that could be indicative of myeloma. She wanted me to see an oncologist as soon as possible who could do more tests.

The first thing the oncologist did was to order a whole body X-ray, which showed no cancer lesions on my bones. She told me the good news herself when I came into her office to have a bone marrow biopsy.

The biopsy showed that my bone marrow had 80-85% of cancer cells. In short, I had lymphoma. The good news was that I had the kind that could be treated. As she put it, I'll probably die from something else before I died from cancer.

Upon hearing the news, I burst out with sobs, as much from learning that not only did I have cancer, but thank god, I had the kind that could be treated. When we got ready to leave, my oncologist hugged me and said that one wouldn't be human if one weren't emotional at such times.

I want to draw a parallel between (a) the emotions I've experienced in dealing with cancer, and (b) what people are feeling about the threat of terrorism and the general state of the world. Yes, I know that the two are not exactly the same, but as a systems philosopher/scientist, there are direct analogues at every level of complex systems.

Personally, I've had the best care and support possible in dealing with a dreaded disease. I have an extremely knowledgeable and caring doctor, plus most important of all, a loving, supportive family. This alone has given me great comfort even though I am far from being through with treatment.

But here's where I feel an incredible disconnect. In effect, our nation and the world are suffering from virulent forms of cancer, of which ISIS is undoubtedly the worst. The demonization of refugees fleeing war is not far behind. It's made worse by the feeling that knowledgeable and caring doctors are missing at every level of society and the world. They are certainly not to be found in the Republicans who only magnify and prey on our fears by proposing simple-minded and dangerous "solutions" such as erecting a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, banning all Muslims from entering the country, and cluster-bombing ISIS without any concern for the tremendous collateral damage this would inflict on innocent civilians.

I voted twice for President Obama, and would do so again if he were able to run. He is extremely intelligent, rational, and well-informed. He is also ethical and well-intentioned. In short, he has many of the qualities one wants in a president. But except after the all-too-frequent mass shootings where he has spoken passionately against our national obsession with guns, his lack of emotion in talking about what he and his administration are doing to combat ISIS is disappointing. Yes, we need a calm and rational voice lest we get drawn into another senseless and unwinnable war in the Middle East, but it does not need to be devoid of all emotion.

In times of great change and especially danger, we need a trusting father or mother figure that will soothe us more than ever. If we don't get them, then the worst danger is that demagogues will fill the void. I pray fervently that this is not our fate.

Ian I. Mitroff is Professor Emeritus from USC. He is a Senior Investigator in The Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley. He is President of Mitroff Crisis Management. His most current book is Dumb, Deranged, and Dangerous: A Smart Guide to Combatting Dumb Arguments.

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