From Iran to Silicon Valley, a Cancer Survivor Shares Her Story

Get Permission

The Iranian revolution of 1979 transformed Iran from an absolute monarchy under Shah Mohammad Pahlavi to an Islamist republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. The author of a new book called The Magic of Normal, Maky Zanganeh, PhD, was born in Iran in 1970. As a young woman, she experienced the war in her country, only to face another challenge—cancer.

Traveling Around the World

The Magic of Normal is a slim book organized into 18 short chapters. Unlike most memoirs by cancer survivors, the diagnosis and treatment come late in this narrative. And by that time, readers have been treated to a story of hardship and triumph. Although the author doesn’t belabor the social tumult of the Islamist revolution, she deftly describes her childhood memories. Instead of breaking her, they forged a stronger girl into womanhood.


Title:The Magic of Normal

Author: Maky Zanganeh, PhD, with Cheryl Berman

Publisher: Page Publishing

Publication Date: December 2021

Price: $18.95, hardcover, 226 pages

Dr. Zanganeh shares: “I was 8 years old when the revolution started. I remember gunshots and how people were hiding in different houses; I also remember long nights in my grandpa’s basement with all our family gathered around.... The terrifying sounds of bombs sounded like thunderstorms, and even after so many years, when I hear a thunderstorm, I jump for a chair. I cannot handle those sounds that bring back childhood memories when we didn’t know whether the bombs would hit our house.”

Dr. Zanganeh left Iran and went to Germany. Her sisters, Mashhad and Shaby, ended up in France while she began her new life in Germany. Dr. Zanganeh related: “I was not just learning a new language, but I had to learn a new culture and lifestyle as well.”

The young girl quickly adapted to her new country, reveling in her new freedom. “What may have been the hardest thing to believe once I got to Germany was that everything was allowed once you turned 16. Young people could drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, have a boyfriend or girlfriend…. I had just left a country where young people had no freedom and arrived in a country where teenage freedom had no limits,” writes the author.

Dr. Zanganeh’s peripatetic life continues in France (she also travels with her friend to Greece, Spain, and Italy, buzzing about on Vespas), where she decides to pursue dentistry. By then, her parents had returned to Iran. It’s here, while creating a narrative roadmap to her eventual emigration saga to the United States, where the book feels a bit cluttered and hurried.

“The intersection of Dr. Zanganeh’s cancer treatments and the onslaught of the COVID pandemic is the best part of the book.”

Tweet this quote

Dr. Zanganeh enlisted the help of Cheryl Berman, the Chief Executive Officer of a branding and marketing company. The two women became friends while Ms. Berman was doing branding for the company, at which Dr. ­Zanganeh held a senior position.

It’s difficult to imagine a more upbeat and driven woman than Dr. Zanganeh. Despite an avalanche of obstacles, she prevails and makes her mark in the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. Readers will get a dizzying trip through the rigors of the drug business, seeing an insider’s perspective on why so many drugs fail early during the costly clinical trial system.

In 2012, Dr. Zanganeh became the company’s Chief Operating Officer, overseeing 224 employees. During that year, her team presented 11 oral presentations at the annual meetings of ASCO and the American Society of Hematology and initiated 5 phase III clinical trials. At times, the pharma speak will get a bit thick with acronyms and unnecessary details, but it’s a good learning experience for readers interested in the nuts and bolts of the drug business.

Cancer Diagnosis

In 2019, Dr. Zanganeh was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. Not surprisingly, after the initial shock, she approaches the diagnosis with a trust in God and the science of oncology, a field she holds in highest regard. Over the course of the book’s longest chapter, she details her treatment: lumpectomy, 4 months of chemotherapy, 1 month of radiation therapy, followed by several years of hormone treatments. Her battle with breast cancer rolls into the COVID-19 pandemic, where “during this crazy period that the world was on pause, my life was on pause too, as I went through my cancer treatments.” Despite the COVID-based challenges to care, Dr. Zanganeh’s oncology team rallies behind her, through a long and tough medical ordeal.

The intersection of her cancer treatments and the onslaught of the COVID pandemic is the best part of the book. It highlights how all the working parts of our disconnected health-care system can show grace under pressure and save the most vulnerable among us.

Despite some technical flaws, The Magic of Normal brings a worthwhile perspective on human survivorship and how spirit and positive attitude can overcome almost anything. For that reason, it’s recommended for readers of The ASCO Post