Shoes and Vigilance

Cancer has made me hate clichés and metaphors (I’ve got a big rant in the works about THAT). But, I admit clichés can be useful because sometimes they are just so accurate, and I find myself using them in spite of myself. The cliché that has ruled my life for the past several years is “waiting for the other shoe to drop”.

I’ll admit up front it isn’t just cancer that made this cliché so dominant in my life. Prior to and during cancer I was in a situation where I was always waiting for the drop of that other shoe. Some detail or whatnot I missed months ago had a way of biting me in the ass much later. By the time I was diagnosed with cancer, I lived constantly on the edge of my seat, waiting for bad repercussions of I-don’t-know-what. I kept vigilant, couldn’t make the smallest decision, without over-thinking it, looking for all the possible outcomes that could turn bad. And yet I still seemed to miss something, and I always felt like I didn’t even know what I was looking for. Too many times a detail would seem benign, only later to be revealed as THE ONE THING that I should’ve realized would explode months later. This repeated experience paralyzed me into often just not making decisions at all—which produces yet another horrible outcome. So you can see how a cancer experience can intensify living in a constant state of red alert. It is an exhausting way to live.

After treatment ended, I extricated myself from that horrible situation, but I remained in a state of constant vigilance for a loooooong time. As my “mythical” 5 year mark approaches (snort of derision), I have relaxed a little bit. I’ve even relaxed in spite of the awful mammography-to-MRI scare last spring (see Complicated Relationship with Hope and Scar Tissue). But I guess it is scanxiety causing me to get a bit tense right now—annual mammogram is tomorrow.

I realize it is not just in terms of cancer that I have this motto of constant vigilance—like Mad Eye Moody in the “Harry Potter” books. (Didn’t he always used to sternly tell the students: “Constant Vigilance!!”? Been a while since I read the books.) I find that when I start feeling all is right with the world, when I think, yeah, I’m “happy”, I get a nagging feeling in my stomach—something is bound to go wrong, that shoe is gonna drop. I chastise myself for not being hyper-alert at all times. I worry over every little thing I said to every single person in the previous week. Or worry that the funny sound I noticed in the car a few days ago is the first sign of my engine’s impending explosion (sometimes my imagination goes to the fantastic, what can I say?). Ugh, why was I not vigilant? Why did I relax? Everything is going too well and it can’t last.

Now, I am sure this ramble proves I’m “stressed out”, and invites the gentle rebuke that I should relax—and some folks think stress causes cancer. I don’t even wanna go down that rabbit hole today—because in my mind that is just another way for me to blame myself for getting cancer (I put myself in a situation of greats stress 10 years ago and did not get myself out, thus causing all my own stress, so I got cancer, and deserved it—ugh, please, don’t lecture me, I can do that all by myself).

But what the act of writing this reminds me is that I learned so many lessons from cancer—but not the kind that get written up in feel good stories on cancer treatment/organization websites, or local and national newspapers touting the newest cancer hero. I learned lots of bad stuff—someday I will write Cancer Curmudgeon’s bad cancer lessons handbook, I swear! But specifically today I’m thinking of how cancer taught me I’ll never be safe again. I guess if I were to get all philosophical, I could realize that bad stuff happens and everyone dies, safety is no guarantee. (Again, I don’t want to hear trite tidbits like I could get hit by a bus any moment—ugh, so overdone.)

The concept of control is a post for another time, not today (though I have flirted with the topic in a past post). I do try to control things that are out of my control; that has been a lifelong struggle. I’ve always been a conservative (not in the political sense) person, careful with risk to the point of avoiding it at all costs, especially money—given that my parents were and remain financially strapped—and we all know that cancer is an economic disaster (no I don’t like gambling, how’d ya guess?).

Two years ago I foolishly put my phone in pocket which led to the dang thing falling in the toilet, getting utterly ruined, and I had to go through the annoying process of waiting and replacing. I vowed to be forever careful, to NEVER let something so stupid happen again. And I was successful until a few days ago. I allowed myself the luxury of a pedicure—only the second in my life—had the phone in my lap, leaned forward, and boom! Phone slid into pool of whirring water intended for feet. I did all the “right” things (put in rice overnight) but the charging apparatus was ruined, and yep, I just got my replacement and I’m going through the gymnastics of re-setting it all up without the ability to import anything from the old dead phone. I’ve been kicking myself for my lack of vigilance the past few days—how could I let this happen?!

So today I must talk myself off the cliff. My lack of vigilance about the phone is not some cosmic sign that my lack of worrying about recurrence will result in disaster tomorrow. I don’t believe in that “cosmic” stuff anyway.

I just have to keep telling myself that.

Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

17 thoughts on “Shoes and Vigilance”

    1. Thanks! I always want to be careful–I know I can’t speak for everyone–I can barely speak for myself! But am glad that this makes sense to others–it helps us all to know that I think.


  1. Yup. This sounds familiar. I love control but cancer doesn’t allow it. Like you I am always in an “alert” mode. It feels awful to be this way I know but the big D (denial) has gone fishing and apparently forgot his way back to me. Probably on purpose, who wants to deal with this cancer business? This has been the biggest hit for me, losing my denial (will post about this soon). But in a way I
    Am too scared not to be “prepared,” because it hurts less. At least for me.

    Good luck with your mammo.


    1. Thanks! Yes, denial–some days I still can’t believe I was/am a cancer patient! And yes, I too prefer to be prepared; a common thread running thru this blog is my sense of being sucker-punched with a cancer Dx.


  2. Hi CC,
    I’ve been thinking about writing that post about the bad things cancer has ‘enlightened’ me about too… maybe some day. One thing cancer definitely robs us of is any sense of safety or control, regarding our health anyway. Like I mentioned in my post, for some strange reason I don’t really think too much about recurrence. Maybe I’m in some kind of denial. I don’t know. Of course, I do think about it, just not as much as one might imagine. Good luck at you appointment tomorrow. Will be thinking about you. And it’s too bad about your phone… How aggravating.


    1. I think posts about the “bad” lessons is so needed–if I see one more pie in the sky I learned to appreciate life because of cancer I’ll scream. It is linked in my mind to the better person after cancer expectation–a concept we both loathe!
      Thanks for good luck wishes!


  3. Oh, lordy! How I can related to this; and I’ve lost count of how many posts I’ve written about the subject, including one called “Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop.” Once, early on, because I was quasi braindead, I left a pair of tights rinsing in the bathroom sink, and forgot to turn the water off. A few hours later, I had a mild flood in my basement ( *sigh*

    I’ve also had a few scan scares. Well, let’s face it — they’re all scary. The last big one was the MRI I got after my regular mammogram because my breast tissue had gotten denser. As I was face-down in the lovely breast MRI machine, crying, I cussed out cancer & wrote some alternative song lyrics ( Sort of worked. The MRI was negative and I did make myself laugh — later.

    The old shoe-drop mindset has gotten better, but it’s never really gone. What has changed is that I’ve learned not to beat myself up so much. Beating ourselves up doesn’t help, really, does it? Cancer happens (also the name of an old post). xoxo, Kathi


    1. Sooo relieved to hear your water story (well sorry that it happened to you), I find that leaving faucets running is a little post-chemo habit I’ve picked up too. So far, I’ve caught it just a few minutes later, but still!!
      I’ll have to read your MRI story a bit later, I too cried last year when I had to have a follow up MRI, and have not found the courage to write about the incident. Some day, maybe. Reading or even thinking about such incidents still gives me heebie jeebies.
      I developed the other shoe dropping mindset prior to cancer, but cancer just exacerbated it. I have much work to do to get out of that rut. But you are right, beating up on the self doesn’t do any good. Thanks for the encouragement! xxox Wendi


  4. This strikes so many chords. Please write the lessons post because you’re right, it is desperately needed and it’s tiring reading how great things are for cancer survivors these days because that simply isn’t my experience. A lot of things are a lot more difficult, require a lot more energy and the struggle seems completely invisible to the rest of the world. Of course I’m glad to be alive, I think we all are, but nothing prepares you for ‘what happens afterwards…’


    1. Ha ha, thanks! I keep delaying a “bad” lessons post because I want it to contain all these bad lessons, and I know I mention some of these in previous posts–just don’t remember what they all are–ugh–will I have to go back and read my old posts for every time I declared :I learned this bad habit because of cancer.
      But yeah, you’re right. All the “cancer taught me (insert random happy life lessons) get frustrating to see all the time/
      Thanks !!!


  5. Yes, and. Here’s what really sucks, and a big sarcastic thank you to any neuroscientist who tells me that’s just the way it is. It seems our brains are hardwired for bad news to scare us and affect our sense of safety. The cosmic joke is that being afraid is supposed to keep us safe. Talk about irony anyone?? Way back when our brains fit our three foot tall hairy ancestors, survival depended on remembering the deadly experiences more than remembering the most pleasant ones. The small furry quadrupeds who best remembered the deadly experiences were the ones who survived to become us. They bequeathed to us the brains that screamed: ‘remember the threatening more than the nonthreatening’. It kept them alive longer to procreate and theirs is the genetics we inherited. So, in an era when tigers aren’t going to eat us, our brains still instruct us to be hyper vigilant against the threat most likely to kill us – in our cases, the big C.

    When the fear is paralyzing, I try to remember that my (how many greats ago?) grandmother’s fear reflex 10,000 years past was the reason she lived to have kids while her braver sisters didn’t. Then it gets really stupid. A bad experience for great grandma might have meant avoiding the waterhole while the lions were drinking. I haven’t figured out how a threatening memory can help me avoid cancer recurrence. But, the same damn part of the brain that served her so well is now sadly out-dated and still playing havoc in my reactions.

    ommmm. That’s me trying to evolve my neuro-plastic brain.


    1. Oh goodness I did not even think about that aspect–that we evolved to remember the scary things as a survival skill (of sorts). Oh well, good! This tidbit actually puts it in perspective for me, and soothes me. Thanks!!


  6. Hi Cancer Curmudgeon, great post on the other shoe waiting to fall. I find that, since cancer entered my life, I’m waiting for the other shoe to fall. I’ve also had a big scare that led to my prophylactic double mastectomy with reconstructions. I tend to hate the cancer cliches, but the shoe waiting to fall resonates with me.

    Hope your appointment went well.


    1. Ugh, I’ve got a big rant about cancer cliches in the works–hope to finish soon. The shoe dropping cliche has been part of my life long before cancer. It had kind of ceased to be a cliche, more like a lifestyle, one I wish to change. I’m almost there, I hope.
      My appointment did go well, thank you. Or at least I was not hauled back to meet the radiologist, and asked to return for an MRI, like what happened last year. Of course, being a person whose first ever mammo was a false negative with a Stage 3 Dx about a month later, my relief last week comes with a grain of salt. But, hey, I’ll take what I can get. Thank you for your kind words–I appreciate you reading my blog!


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