Out of the Cage
Taming the Fear That Arises When Cancer Treatment Ends
by Marilyn Zagha-Keeshan
Sometime during the spring of 2021, I felt a protruding lymph node near my groin, the spot where lymphoma started more than two years ago. I called my oncologist right away, and they immediately did a PET scan – nothing.
I was relieved. My doctor said he would repeat the test in October, and eventually the lymph node disappeared. That is, until very recently, but this time it was on both sides. Another PET scan was taken, and the physician assistant said the scans were “perfect.” I heard her words, but I had no reaction. “You don’t look relieved,” she remarked.
At that moment, my mind went blank. I felt like a lion that had just been let out of its cage and had no idea which way to turn. A lion, which if it’s been caged long enough, might very well just turn back and stay there.
It wasn’t that I wanted to have cancer again. But I suddenly came face to face with just how much anxiety I had been
living with. Up until that point, my anxiety had been directed at various body symptoms. But if everything was “perfect,” what was I supposed to do with the complex feelings and physical sensations I was experiencing?
As my healthcare provider was assuring me I was well, I realized I was not ready to embrace wellness. I had been in remission for a year but continued to have periods of total exhaustion and disturbing stomach issues. Though I was technically cancer-free, I still felt surrounded by an atmosphere of cancer. I had no idea what to do with wellness.
It’s an emotionally exhausting experience to have questions with no answers. Two years ago, when I was diagnosed with angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma, it was anxiety that had propelled my search for answers to the symptoms I was experiencing. Though the answer turned out to be cancer, I still felt relief because at least I had an answer, and a treatment plan.
But back in my physician assistant’s office after this latest PET scan – like the lion fresh out of its cage, wide-eyed, looking to the right, left, and straight ahead – I saw only a vast empty, frightening space. And the anxiety that had always propelled me forward had become an overwhelming mass of energy screaming for direction. In that moment, all I could do was cry.
Then I reminded myself that I am in remission, blessedly. I made it, and though I am scared and feeling lost with grief, it’s natural. As I walked out of that office, I felt glimpses of relief as the lion within trotted away into the unknown while I confronted my fears.
Marilyn Zagha-Keeshan is a New York state- certified social worker who spent her career working in community-based mental health clinics with children, couples, and families before moving to the NYC Department of Education and then later to providing counseling for senior centers and hospice programs. She enjoyed her career in public service until she was diagnosed with angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma in March 2020. During treatment, her years of journaling for personal expression turned to essay writing, where she was able to share her cancer experiences and life lessons through her blog, MarilynMuses.com and on Facebook.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2022.
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