Dealing with the Anxiety of a Cancer Diagnosis & Recurrence

Dealing with the Anxiety of a Cancer Diagnosis & Recurrence Marilyn Zagha-Keeshan

It’s Never Boring

by Marilyn Zagha-Keeshan

How many times have we heard “this will be funny someday?” It’s not funny now, but then again, how many times have we heard “there are two sides to every story?” Can something be anxiety-provoking and funny at the same time?

I remember the first time I realized just how anxious cancer makes me. I was in remission and when I was told the “good news” about my pet scan, I couldn’t react. The weight of anxiety and the realization of its hold on my emotions was tremendous. I wrote about it in an essay called “Out of the Cage” which is in my blog and published in Coping Magazine.

I understand now that unless I actually try to address it, it doesn’t go away. It occurs over and over again like Groundhog Day, which ironically is the day I found out about my cancer recurrence.

Cancer recurrence

Often the second time around makes us pros at something. We can move forward with the wisdom of experience. We know more when we buy our second car, but the second time around with cancer is somehow even scarier than the first. This persistent bugger won’t go away, now there’s the fear that it’s even stronger than before, and it might ultimately win. 

The treatment is not the same because it didn’t work the first time, so the anxiety is more intense. I think the first time I believed that everything will work out. This time my treatment, a clinical trial, is working, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. My oncologist suggested that perhaps there is no other shoe. 

I think he’s sweetly optimistic and unconvincing because after all the very word trial implies it could go either way. I just hope that when the other shoe does drop, it is not a combat boot. Maybe it can be a ballet slipper so I can exhaust myself by dancing away the anxiety. 

Clinical trials

Being on a clinical trial has the advantage of lots of attention from the clinical trial team. Who can honestly say that they ever receive enough attention in life? I am encouraged to report every change noticed, and it is written in a file called a “list of issues.” This tickled me because as a neurotic person, I always have a list of issues. 

Complaining is encouraged! Being compliant, I examine my body vigilantly. I was doing an exercise that involved bending over, and on the way down, I found several large bulges on the calf of my right leg. Then I noticed that my right leg is a bit wider than my left, and I was positive that something was wrong. 


I called Memorial Sloan Kettering in a panic and spoke to a nurse who asked several clarifying questions. Her specific questions and my vague anxious answers prompted her to ask if I’d like to come in. “YES!” Never mind the hectic traffic from the southern part of Brooklyn to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. 

I drove in and went to the waiting room. An assistant came out to get me, and as we walked to the examining room she remarked, “Great that you’re able to make a same day visit!” I couldn’t tell her that I was too anxious to wait or that this state of being was beginning to feel normal.

The nurse looked at my leg and asked, “What am I looking for?” 

“These bulges and my right leg is swollen!” 

She looked, touched, got another nurse to look and touch, and finally said, “I don’t see anything.” 

I desperately wanted something to be wrong in order to validate the tremendous amount of anxiety I was experiencing. “Isn’t this leg bigger?” 

“Maybe a little – are you comfortable in the shoes you’re wearing?” 

When I left, I felt both relieved and foolish like the boy who cried wolf.

I realize that ego and anxiety seem to work together. I laugh at myself because I actually wanted an additional medical problem just so I could be right. Anxiety eradicates logic because I just remembered that my right leg has been bigger than my left ever since I had the arthroscopy surgery there many years ago.

So, to answer my question, I suppose anxiety can be funny, but one thing it is not, it is never boring.

Marilyn Zagha-Keeshan is a New York state-certified social worker with over 30 years experience in group, individual, and family therapy, working with philanthropic agencies as well as the New York City Department of Education. Diagnosed with angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma in February 2020, she completed chemotherapy that July and underwent a stem cell transplant in August. Still recuperating, with many lessons learned in the process, Marilyn writes about her experiences on her blog,