Waiting for results has become a part of my life. Over the last six years, since my diagnosis with stage 4 bowel cancer in 2014, there have been scans and tests of one sort or another more or less every three months.

It never gets any easier, that trepidation, the fear that this time my wonderful oncologist will have run out of options or ideas. Uncertainty is the name of the game and most of us living with cancer have learnt to play it.

But this time was different. After a raised temperature and slightly dry throat that I had paid little mind to I realised, over the three days it took to get the result of the Covid-19 test back, that I wasn’t worried – at least not in the way I am when waiting after a cancer check-up.

I had been tested as part of one of my routine cancer checks which, though negative for all the infections that sometimes follow cancer treatments, found that I did indeed have coronavirus. The truth is that living with a disease that is literally a matter of life or death has given me a different perspective on things, a way of looking at the world around me in a calmer, more contented way.

Whether it is the mundane, like getting our cellar re-tanked (now overdue by about three years), or the personal (like remembering our wedding anniversary), none of it seems as urgent or important as living each day as it comes, as if it might be your last. If I can live with cancer, surely I can live with Covid-19? That was my thinking when I picked up my phone late one evening and saw that it was my oncologist, who shared the news.

“Most people will have mild or moderate symptoms,” is the way Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, had put it in his clipped and matter-of-fact manner.  Well, it turns out that the comfortingly alliterative “mild or moderate” covers such a range of symptoms that it’s almost like suffering from a different disease.

Though my own symptoms had been mild, my wife Frances, to whom I’d passed on the infection, had the works – a temperature, aches, vomiting, diarrhoea and a loss of taste and smell. We had the fatigue in common. We assume Frances has had Covid-19 but, of course, we’ll never know because she’ll never be tested. That’s another story.  Another mystery is whether we have any sort of immunity.

Could we start doing the things we used to do, like looking after our granddaughter? Frances is WFH (another acronym, like WTF, that we’re going to have to get used to) but in my case I’d have to return to the BBC newsroom, something I really want to do.

A friend of ours, an immunologist, tells us he’s seen a study that says anti-body production begins about ten to fourteen days after first symptoms start but it’s not clear how long any presumed immunity would last for. We are, to coin a phrase, in the territory of known unknowns.

There is one significant way in which dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic is worse than living with cancer. One of the great revelations of being diagnosed with cancer, and accepting the vulnerability that comes with it, is the way it has enriched my relationships with friends and family. People who never hugged me somehow felt they had licence to do so; friends, new and old, have sat through the chemo sessions, holding my hand when that is what I wanted or simply watching over me as I drifted off to sleep.

We’re a pretty tactile family – my wife, our sons, my sisters – but oh how we have revelled in being physically close to each other these past few years. And that is precisely what Covid-19 has robbed us of. Social distancing, self-isolation, shelter-in-place – these are euphemisms for robbing us of the very thing that makes us human.

Physical contact, to touch each other, to sit next to each other, to walk side-by-side, these are the myriad, wordless ways in which we show our affection for those we care for. 

Having a faltering conversation with an ageing aunt over the phone is no substitute for popping round and embracing her. Having a Zoom gathering with old uni friends is never going to match staying in the big house we had planned to rent together – as we do every year. 

So, now I’m more than two weeks past my diagnosis, the thing I look forward to more than anything else is this: sitting on our aging, lumpy sofa with my granddaughter on my lap, looking at a picture book that I seem to enjoy more than she does, feeling her little heart pumping out a rhythmic beat, an affirmation of life that will go on long after I am gone – whether it is cancer or old-age that gets to me first. 

George Alagiah is donating his fee for this article to NHS Charities Together nhscharitiestogether.co.uk

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