A Cancer Lesson Learned from a Funky Pair of Shoes

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Among the many lessons I’ve learned since my diagnosis with cancer, there’s one in particular that I refer to daily. It’s a lesson learned from wearing a pair of odd-looking shoes.

I’ve always been a lover of shoes, and believe me when I say, I’ve had quite a collection over the years. I’ve had wooden-soled clogs, four-inch-high platform boots, Jesus-style sandals handcrafted from water buffalo hide and everything in between.

Shoes have been a practical way of expressing my personality. They’ve also provided extra height or extreme comfort when I’ve needed it. Although I don’t remember when my obsession with shoes began, I’ve never felt guilty over it, even when I ran out of space in my walk-in closet to house them.

But there’s one pair of shoes I’ve enjoyed more than all the others: my Vibram five-finger shoes. Yes, you read that right — five-finger shoes.

I’d never heard of five-finger shoes until a coworker wore a pair to work one day. As we stood talking in the hallway at a mega church in Atlanta, I couldn’t help but look down at his feet. He was much taller than I and it was more comfortable to look down at times than to look up at his face. When I caught sight of his oddly shaped shoes, I had to ask about them.

Immediately, he began to laugh. “I get that reaction a lot,” he said. Then, he went on to explain the concept behind the shoes. “Five-finger shoes are like gloves for your feet,” my friend shared “It’s kind of like going barefoot without the danger of injury.” How interesting, I thought, as I asked where he’d purchased them. After he gave me the information, I made a mental note to order some as soon as I returned to my office.

A few weeks later, the shoes arrived, and I quickly put them on. It took a few minutes to get used to putting my feet into the shoes as I had to maneuver each toe into proper position, just like you’d slide fingers into a glove. Once on, I walked around the house noticing how my feet felt. My friend had been right, it was just like walking barefoot without the threat of injury. I liked the way they felt and wondered how they might feel on grass instead of carpet.

Walking outside, in my funky-looking shoes, I walked across the grass noticing I barely felt anything at all. The shoes had a thick, rubber sole but since my toes were in their own separate compartments, I found myself gripping with them as I walked, much like I would if I hadn’t been wearing shoes at all. When I moved from the grass onto rocky terrain, I could feel the stones under my feet, but they weren’t burdensome, they were bearable. Instead of slipping on loose gravel, the shoes helped me stride easily across and I felt more connected to the earth than ever.

That’s when I remembered something I’d heard at the cancer treatment center.

Shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I was asked to take part in some mindfulness classes. The naturopath explained they’d help me learn to be present as I went through treatment. I thought the classes would be a joke, but I went anyway to appease the staff.

In the first class, we journaled focusing on how we were feeling at that particular moment in time. We were asked to think about nothing other than the immediate time frame — we shouldn’t think about anything in the past or what might happen in the future.

It was more challenging than I thought. As I sat there with pen in hand, I realized I knew nothing about being present in the moment. Try as I might, I couldn’t help but think about what lay ahead: surgery, radiationand medication. While I wanted to be present, I didn’t know how.

The next class offered at the cancer treatment center focused on learning to be grounded. We listened as the leader talked about how we must let go of our desire to control life events, especially those over which we had no control.

“Easy for you to say,” I thought, “You’re not the one with cancer!” But as I listened, I had to agree with her. She said we would all face adversity at some point in our lives, and it was important to learn to not only submit to the storms that came our way, but to embrace them as learning experiences. Unless we learned to make the best of a bad situation, the storm would break us.

Standing at the base of the gravel trail in my five-finger shoes, I remembered what the teacher of the mindfulness class had shared. Looking down at my feet, I focused hard on where I was and what I was doing at that present moment. My feet were firmly planted on the ground, and I could feel it beneath me. I was upright, which was a good thing! It meant I was in control of my body at the moment. I could choose to walk forward or to stay put and stand still. The choice was mine. I was focused.

When I came back inside and slipped off the five fingered shoes, I looked down at my bare feet. My toes were wiggling and enjoying the freedom of no longer being confined to shoes. I liked the way the carpet beneath them tickled and comforted me at the same time. Standing, I walked across the floor. I didn’t want to put my shoes back on even though I enjoyed the five-fingered experience the Vibrams offered.

What did it really mean to be grounded, to be mindful, to be present in the moment? Those thoughts were rolling around in my head. If I had to lump them all together, especially as they related to cancer, I’d have told anyone it was like walking barefoot.

Yes, five-fingered shoes are nice and they’re definitely a talking point but being barefoot is much more natural.

The soles of my feet aren’t tough like they were when I was a kid running barefoot all summer long.They’ve gotten used to being indoors most of the time and I’ve become very tender footed, but I do know now what it means to be grounded.

Thanks to my five-fingered shoes, or lack thereof, I know having my feet firmly planted on a solid surface steadies me. It reminds me to slow down and take one moment at a time. It reminds me I can control whether to move forward or stay put. Most of all, it reminds me to pay attention to where I plant my feet.

I have the ability to stay grounded even in the midst of tumultuous situations. When life gets crazy and feels out of control, I can slip off my shoes and make the decision to be grounded. Then, and only then, can I choose to endure whatever comes my way, even if that something happens to be cancer.

I know I can’t control the future, but I can control what I do in the next moment. I can take the small action of moving ahead instead of constantly looking backward. I think that’s progress and a great way of taking care of myself. And to think, I learned all this from a pair of shoes that made my feet look like a gorilla’s!

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