When my sister, Roberta, phoned on the morning of her 64th birthday, Feb. 2, 2017, I thought it was to report whether she had seen her shadow. We designated her our official groundhog from the time she was little, and she performed this yearly ritual unfailingly (apologies, Punxsutawney Phil).

But this year it wasn’t a did-she-saw-her shadow report. Instead, she said she’d just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had awakened two weeks earlier with a funny feeling in her pelvic area, so she went to her primary-care doctor. The doc felt nothing on examination, but ordered an ultrasound, just to be on the safe side.

It took a week for the primary care doc to get the ultrasound report, which revealed a mass in the left ovary. That doc referred Bert to a gynecological surgeon, which also took a week. On Feb. 2, Bert got the bad news. She would need her ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, and omentum removed, followed by chemotherapy. This is when Bert began to describe her situation as HUAW—Hurry Up and Wait. Here’s how she put it:

“I got to the first chemo infusion appointment early, to make sure I was on time. After waiting an hour, I was in the infusion chair. The nurses, who were scurrying about to take my and other patients’ vitals and set up the infusion IVs, said it could take up to 2.5 hours for the chemo to be mixed and brought up from the pharmacy downstairs. I thought, what the heck — more HUAW.”

Bert’s been battling this cancer for over six years now, and HUAW has become our coded mantra for her cancer journey. With regular CT Scans and CA125 tests to check for cancer antigen levels, Bert hurries to each appointment, and then endures the interminable wait for results that in her case have life-and-death implications.

Like Bert, our nation is battling a cancer whose essence — embodied in MAGA-inspired leaders and followers — threatens the life of our democracy. It didn’t take long for a sizeable swath of Americans to endorse Donald Trump’s demagogic abuse of our democratic laws and norms.

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With the campaign season upon us, many of us are asked to HUAW in pleas for immediate contributions to pro-democracy candidates and initiatives, to stop the flood of autocratic initiatives like the Big Lie about the “stolen election” along with right-wing initiatives against voting rights, gun safety regulations, women’s and LGBTQ healthcare, climate change. Then there are the threats to teachers who dare to offer honest accounts of our brutal history of slavery and/or make any mention of life-threatening gender issues.

Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams exemplifies the need to HUAW in her Aug. 23, 2023, online solicitation to help Georgia win the 2024 election, to “stop Trump and his allies right here, right now.” The words “right now” appear three times in that mailing, which emphasizes her view that we don’t have the luxury of time — that we must hurry up in acting to defeat the autocratic movement from within our borders.

Some may think this is much ado about nothing. Such denial isn’t a luxury for the great many Americans who’ve experienced racial discrimination at the polls, gender discrimination in seeking medical care, and/or whose family has been destroyed by gun violence. Even if Trump loses in 2024, the MAGA movement will persist, given the size of his base. After all, you don’t need to be a political pundit to get that it’s the many far-right-wing voters that move 2024 GOP presidential candidates to raise their hands on the debate stage when asked if they will back Trump if he were to be convicted.

The problem for those of us who take immediate political action in various ways is that we must wait for the polls to close on election day in November 2024 (or even longer), to get the results of our efforts. That’s a long, long wait to find out the fate of our democracy. And like biological cancers, there are no guarantees of a cure for this national malignancy.

It’s tempting to give up, thinking no kind of political action will defeat our home-grown autocratic affliction. So why bother? Bert said she knows cancer patients who have given up, a decision she understands all too well. But despite her less-than-desirable odds, to her that is unthinkable. With the misery of her unceasing treatments and interminable waits, she presses on nonetheless. In this I find her heroic.

We won’t be considered heroes for fighting the autocratic forces that now pervade our nation’s body, knowing we’ll have a long wait to know whether we prevailed. Still, we must press on as if our lives as self-determining citizens depend on it. Because they do.

Barbara held is the Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. 

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