I’ve never really paid that much attention to the idea of looking after myself. I’ve long been a burning-the-candle-at-both-ends workaholic who viewed rest as something other people did and that I needed only rarely. I haven’t had a holiday in years, and when I have taken holidays I’ve usually been doing something high-stress concurrently, like skippering a yacht, or producing an Edinburgh Fringe show. I worked night shifts to fund my way through my masters, catching an hour’s sleep here and there in whatever common room I could access that was quiet enough. I headed off to the Central African Republic to continue my PhD fieldwork five weeks out of major lung surgery. I’ve pushed myself, more and more over time, to be “that person” who does everything – works hard, parties harder, sails in the summer and makes theatre in the winter. And now, all of a sudden, I’ve had to stop.
And by stopping, I’ve discovered something amazing – self-care. You see, cancer makes your life difficult to predict – it’s a battle that you basically have no control over. People say things like “you’re a fighter”, but really it’s a matter of doctors putting chemicals in me and waiting to see what happens. I can’t help the chemicals other than to whisper softly to them “good hunting”. This week I wasn’t allowed the chemicals because my white blood cell count was too low. The nurse assured me that it wasn’t a matter of me pushing myself too hard the week before – it’s just the chemicals they’re putting in me are super toxic and sometimes my body needs a break. But the unpredictability of chemicals and blood cells and treatment regimes can be offset somewhat by the establishment of a predictable self-care routine. My entire life, right now, has become entirely dedicated to working out what will make me feel good from day-to-day, and then enacting that thing. It might be staying in bed and watching Game of Thrones, it might be going for a walk in the sunshine, it might be making myself a really nice sandwich. But whatever it is, I do my best to find a way to do it.
And I’ll tell you what, it’s amazing. Many people have commented on how good I look, how positive and upbeat I am, how I’m basically just myself despite the huge, scary thing that’s happening in my life. A huge part of that stems from my new found commitment to self-care. I’ve never felt so attuned to what my body is telling me about what it needs. Keen as I am to see people and get on with things, I’m learning to plan dedicated rest days into my life, to sleep when I feel I need to without any guilt, to take advantage of the Macmillan Centre’s amazing complementary therapy service. And it all makes me wonder why I’ve never tried to do this before, even in the most minimal of ways. How focused our society is becoming “that person” – the mythical person who does everything awesome going and never needs a break. How little time we plan just for working out what will make us feel good each day and then doing it without feeling guilty about doing something for ourselves. So take some time out today and do just that, I urge you. Especially if you’re a burning-the-candle-at-both-ends workaholic like I was. I wish I’d done it sooner! And while having cancer really super sucks, discovering the power of self-care has been really super awesome. It’s amazing what difficult diseases can teach you about yourself.