Learning to look after myself

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.

A short walk in the sunshine on my first holiday in years.

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.


  1. Roberta Mallows |

    Oi Gill 🙂

    I was talking to Rafael about finding a private language tutor and told him I taught someone from UCL he may know, Gill Conquest, and he said you are good friends. Then he told me about this cataclysm that has happened in your life.
    I was very upset, even though you were my student for a short period and it was a long time ago, I really liked your personality and it was a pleasure to teach you.
    It’s funny the way you described how you used to live your life. It was exactly how I imagined it. You gave off the vibe of an hyper active bright spark. This is who you are and that’s why you are such an amazing young woman. But you are asolutely right about learnig to take it easy sometimes and to look at the sky and smell the flowers.
    It is so generous of you to share your wisdom and remind us of what really matters in life. Thanks!
    I am wishing you a speedy recovery and all the best of luck.
    Lots of love,

  2. Today I’m in Landes near Magesq and here I am near midnight catching up on everyone else, Dolina McClennan’s twenty year old pepper grinder, a drunken Minister in SA………we have had chicken and potatoes with new French friends outside in the Landes forrest, tres bien…….but there was a momemt earlier standing in the Atlantic which was epic, just me’nthesun’n my body and the waves. These moments are worked for but then they just arrive. Cheers.

  3. Hey Gill,
    Am in RCA at the moment – glad to find someone else who not just knows where it is, but has actually been there! Which area were you in?

    What you’ve written about is something I’ve reflected on a fair amount (an important topic in the busy world of humanitarian pressure). One thing that stays in my mind is a story told in John Ortberg’s book “soul care”.
    A number of years ago, a woman was travelling through the African jungle, and had hired a number of porters to go with her. The first day they travelled far, and she was impressed by their progress. The next morning, she was looking forward to a productive second day, when she saw that they were also sitting around under their trees. She encouraged them to get up and start moving, but they responded “No, we’re not moving today. We travelled so far yesterday that today we need to rest to let our souls catch up with our bodies”.

    I really like that concept! To let our emotions catch up with our experiences, and for us to be physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually whole.

    Enjoy the surprises and moments that each day brings,

  4. Lucy Buckingham |

    Hi Gill,

    I have come across this from your FB page, you have always been inspirational to me even back in the H&B days, you were my first friend when I came to Sussex and you can never take that away from me.

    I admire your strength and gun ho approach to what you are facing I am going to learn to take a piece of your approach and understand and accept there are going to be bad days in my life and recovery but tomorrow is another day,.

    oh and for the record I also have to plan rest days into my weeks, it can really muck up plans especially at the weekends after working all week,

    Onwards and upwards