man dressed as a king, sitting in an armchair amongst piles of junk

Cancerlation - Leaving Things Undone

Last updated: October 2019

When you have cancer, your outlook on life gets upended and everything takes two giant steps to the left. Things seem familiar but they are never exactly the same as they were. It takes getting used to but, as humans, most of us do adapt and make the best of the situation. That is, if you can learn how to live with things undone.

Cancer steals energy and motivation

If cancer takes one thing from you, it’s energy. It sucks motivation down like avocado toast at an artisan fair-trade organic non-traditional hipster coffee shoppe. It’s not just the physical stamina that goes, it’s the will to do and even when you find the motivation you run out of gas faster than cucumber water at a Massage Envy. What that leads to is things left undone, and being ok with what I’m calling “cancerlation,” is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when the big C comes knocking.

Pushing myself to finish my to-do list

Now, I’m the kind of person who would rather beat himself to death with his own shoes than leave a project half finished. Beat himself half to death? Half-beat himself to death. Half-beat his half-self to half-death. Winner. Ahem, anyway, the point is I have always pushed myself to finish whatever was on the slate for the day, sometimes at the cost of my own health. Before cancer, I suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for many years, so crawling into bed at the end of the night with joints and muscles aching was acceptable, as long as I got that hit of sweet, sweet, task completion. Mmmmm. Yeah, completeness. That’s good completion… err, is what I’d say to myself. My almost OCD-like fervor for getting the “to-do” list, and then the “honey-do” list, and then the “I’m single again so I guess it’s back to a to-do list” list always pushed me just to the edge of hurting myself. That was possible with just RA, but once I added lymphoma into the mix things changed. There just wasn’t enough energy to fight for my life and also get everything done – I had to choose, and that meant leaving things undone.

Clutter, my archnemesis

Clutter. Ugh. I can barely stand to type the word. Clutter is my nemesis - the Darth Vader of the clean spaces, the eye of Sauron of the counter tops, the piles of junk belonging to he-who-shall-not-be-named – clutter gets under my skin like nothing else. It’s so bad, in fact, that I can’t truly relax if I know that there is still straightening up to do. I get a feeling inside that’s hard to describe, like when you have to be at the same party with someone you are fighting with and even though you have your backs to each other you both know that each other is there and everyone else around knows you are fighting with each other. Hmmm, I guess it wasn’t that hard to describe. That feeling, the long one from above, that’s what I feel inside if I haven’t finished everything I should. It’s simply impossible to sit without the feeling creeping up in the back of my head, louder and louder, until I GET ‘ER DONE (sorry, couldn’t resist). That just wasn’t an option, though, when the cancer hit. I, quite literally, couldn’t do more than a few minutes of work a day, and the clutter began to pile up. And pile up. And pile up some more. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by piles of junk that would put a hoarder to shame, me sitting in my chair in the middle of it all, like some Fraggle Rock king of the junkpile. It was torture, day after day, until I finally found a way to be OK with leaving things undone.

I found a way to be OK with leaving things undone

How did I achieve this seemingly impossible epiphany, you ask? (I assume) It really is a wonder of psychology, a miracle of sheer will, a leap forward in clutter technology. Ok, you twisted my arm, I’ll tell you. As I sat on my throne of junk mail, unfolded clothes and unasked for issues of Golf Digest, I suddenly shouted Eureka! and decided from that moment on that I’d make my lists smaller!

Shorter lists...they really work!

Ok, ok, I may have oversold my solution a bit, and when I say “may have,” I mean “did.” I made my lists shorter. I broke them up into parts. I whittled the “to-dos” down to “toodle-dos,” I…  whatever you get the picture. I know, it sounds so simple, and that’s because it is. Look, seriously, I know there are a ton of you out there like me who were go-getters and come-here..  ers.. that were not only hit with the physical force of cancer but also the mental tsunami of not being able to finish our work on time any more. Like me, you’d rather be surrounded by impatient cobras who just came from the DMV than piles of unopened mail and dirty plates. I won’t even mention the dust and grime that seems to collect faster than interest on a drug lord’s bank account, and before you know it you are existing inside a LIVING HELL of dirt and grime that would make the scrubbing bubbles themselves commit a mass self-popping in protest. Here’s the fun secret I discovered though – moving forward slowly is still moving. Just because your to-do list for the day only says “fold half the laundry” or “get rid of that horrid sardine casserole the neighbor brought over…   sardines, seriously Peggy?” It doesn’t mean it’s any less of an accomplishment than when you used to make to-do lists as long as CVS receipts and as wordy as a Russian tragedy. Or comedy. (It’s hard to tell which is which – I think it has something to do with how much vodka is left at the end.)

Leaving things undone gets easier as time goes on, I promise. Here’s the great thing, though, no matter how much is undone, you don’t ever stop being you. Just like that “pimple” you got in college, there’s no cure – being a go-getter will be with you for the rest of your life, no pesky illness is going to change that. Now I need to go get some ointment for my, uh, “pimple.” Talk soon!

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