Rest Lessons: “I still feel guilty about doing nothing – even with stage 4 breast cancer”

Rest Lessons: “I still feel guilty about doing nothing – even with stage 4 breast cancer”

Welcome to Rest Lessons, Strong Women’s new weekly series that asks women about the moment their relationship with rest and recovery changed for ever. 

Laura Price is a food and travel writer, podcaster and author currently living with stage 4 breast cancer. 

Hi Laura! What’s the one lesson you’ve learned about rest?

That every woman is completely different. I have friends in their forties who can still run marathons while being hotshot lawyers and mothers, and I have others whose oestrogen levels have dropped so dramatically, they can barely get out of bed in the morning. We need to be kind and understanding towards each other because no two bodies or minds are the same. 

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“I tested positive for the faulty BRCA1 gene – now I’m opting for an elective mastectomy at 28 to reduce my risk of developing breast cancer”

That sounds like a good life lesson in general. So, what does ‘rest’ mean to you right now?

Three weeks ago, I had major surgery to remove my cancerous sternum bone, so right now, I should be doing little other than resting. However, as I gain more mobility and energy by the day, I find myself increasingly drawn to my desk, whether that’s to write about the surreal 10 days I spent in hospital or to pursue the freelance work I need to survive as a self-employed person with incurable cancer. 

Despite having been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer last summer, I still feel a huge sense of guilt around resting. I was brought up by working-class parents with a super-strong work ethic, and that instilled in me a sense that I should always be working and striving for more. As a consequence, I find it extremely hard to rest.  

While yours are obviously an extreme and unique set of circumstances, that also sounds incredibly relatable. Pre-sternum operation, was there a point in your life when rest had to become a priority?

I spent my 20s working as a well-paid financial news journalist, often working 14-hour days and suffering crippling migraines and shingles as a result of high stress levels. I ran a marathon, travelled all over the world, spoke several languages and managed large teams in a multinational corporation. 

Then, when I was 29, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I spent the first year of my 30s having chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. I had barely stopped to breathe throughout my 20s, and while my busy lifestyle wasn’t the cause of my cancer (I later found out I have a rare genetic mutation), I don’t think it helped.  

How did your relationship with rest and recovery change in that moment?

While my 30s were still extremely busy, I learned to prioritise the things I really, truly wanted to do. I quit my job in financial journalism to become a food writer and eventually quit my next job to go freelance and finish my debut novel, Single Bald Female, which was inspired by my cancer experience. 

Although I still travelled extensively, I no longer went straight back to my desk,red-eyed; instead, I started to schedule downtime around my trips to unpack and rest at home with my cats. I learned to say ‘no’ to things, listening to my body when I knew I was taking on too much. I prioritised sleep and vegetables. As my body moved towards perimenopause, I gave up running half-marathons and prioritised gentle jogs and swimming, which my body told me were more doable.  

So, taking that time out must have had some benefits – right?

Well, a decade after my original diagnosis, I found out the cancer had spread to my bones and was now incurable… so I can’t say that prioritising rest was the key to life-long good health, but I do think it helped me live longer and better before the cancer came back. Cancer is out of my control, but prioritising sleep, a good diet and steady exercise has given me a sense that I’m doing everything I can towards the bits I can control. 

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What do you think women tend to get wrong about rest?

As women, we want to do it all. We’ve been conditioned to think we must have the killer career as well as supporting the family, making time for our friends and being amazing cooks. Even when we’re ‘resting’ in front of the TV or with a book, we are often distracted by our phones – desperately trying to build our own brands and answering work-related DMs at 10pm. How is it even possible to rest with all that going on? 

I don’t know if resting is a gender-related thing though. I’d rather look at animals for the answer – my cats are on a sleep-eat-wash-repeat cycle, and they seem to be doing something right. Ultimately, I don’t think we should beat ourselves up about our inability to rest. We have enough on our plates as it is. 

You’re so right – the guilt of not resting is a burden in itself. So finally, how do you prioritise rest day-to-day?

I always prioritise sleep and good food, and I listen to what my body needs. When I was long-distance running in my late 20s and early 30s, I would often need a sleep in the middle of the day and felt extraordinarily achy, whereas swimming would leave me feeling energised and supple. 

Now I’m 40, I’d love to still be running marathons, but I’ve learned to go with what’s right for me and my body’s capabilities. I never schedule two nights out in a row; in fact, I rarely schedule more than one evening engagement per week because I get too exhausted. I’ve had to explain to friends that even though my calendar is technically free that night, it doesn’t mean I’m available – I’ve scheduled in rest for a reason. I say ‘no’ more often than ‘yes’ and I’ve found a partner who understands my needs too. 

Laura’s debut novel, Single Bald Female, is out now. 

Images: Laura Price

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