As we prepare for tighter controls of movement and socialising due to the coronavirus pandemic, here are some lessons in self-isolation I picked up during my lengthy fight against cancer.

I was probably luckier than many when I went into my own ‘lockdown’ during my treatment for bowel cancer, which occupied most of 2015.

Nic in the radiotherapy department

For nearly three years beforehand, I had worked from home as a freelance journalist and writer and had the support of my wife and family while I was unable to walk more than a few metres, particularly after my two operations.

I was also able to continue working, albeit just for short bursts at first and sometimes while stuck in bed.

Writing a blog

And I wrote a blog, which I called ‘Cancer-talk’, to tell anyone interested what to expect from the different stages of cancer treatment in an easy-to-read chatty personal style. 

I did this after finding the booklets and websites that the medical people directed us to rather frightening and thought human stories about survival might be more comforting. 

My first big operation was in April, which I discovered was Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, and I thought I’d play my part at awareness-raising by passing on useful tips to help others going through similar treatment.

Writing about your experience might help anyone who gets the COVID-19 virus, providing they are not too ill.

It may help to keep your blogs more positive if you don’t write – or at least don’t publish – while you are really down. Wait until you feel a bit better and then look back at what you’ve gone through and be relieved that you’ve got through it with a story to tell.

So what are some of the lessons that can be easily transferred from fighting cancer to fighting something like the coronavirus?

Listen to experts

The first is listen to advice from the experts and take what others say with a pinch of salt when required.

I met a number of patients during my cancer journey who said they were not going to bother with optional post-operation chemotherapy because they wouldn’t be able to fly to their annual holiday in Benidorm. 

I couldn’t believe how short-sighted that sounded. Surely small sacrifices are worth making if it gives your rate of survival and recovery in the long-term a better chance, particularly after surgery.

I was probably more rigid in following the advice not to mix or socialise during my chemo and radiotherapy than many of the patients. One told me he was still flying out to Turkey during chemo and was back in hospital after becoming very ill.

Chemotherapy weakens your immune system to other viruses and can you leave you feeling terrible at times. So, travelling and mixing too closely with hundreds of people in a plane was the last thing on my mind.

Avoid crowds 

In echoes of what we are being told now, I abandoned going to the pub in the evenings or anywhere crowded for ages and often found that my only trips out were to hospital to check on my progress and undergo treatment or visit the Holistic Centre. Sadly, those trips to James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough became something of a big adventure to look forward to, as they gave me a proper excuse for getting out of the house!

Nic with colorectal sister Angela Stanley prior to big op

But, if as seems likely, and, we experience a tight lockdown nationwide in the battle against COVID-19, you will understand what I mean when you are allowed to go to the chemist or food shopping.

My regime did mean missing out on my annual jaunt to the EUPRIO conference, the gathering of like-minded communication professionals from universities across Europe. And, of course, that just happened to be in lovely Perugia in the heart of Italy that year.

And I’ve been careful with travelling since, particularly if I don’t feel well. This is another thing we will all have to get used to with the coronavirus.

Working from home

It is actually easier than it sounds to work from home and I managed to pick up one or two bits of extra work just before my cancer fight-back year started in 2015, including writing articles for BBC Education News Online about trends in European higher education.

I quickly became a master of the Skype interview and one of my feature articles for the BBC – about the brain drain in Lithuania since the fall of Communism – won the 2015 Outstanding Higher Education Journalism Award from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

Sadly, I couldn’t make the awards ceremony in London because I still had someway to go with my six months of post-op chemotherapy. But winning really boosted my spirits.

Another suggestion is try to cordon part of your home as a working space and try to do all your work there. So you can leave your ‘home office’ when finished and ‘go home’ – despite that being just going downstairs or to the next room!

And try to make your home environment has comfortable as possible.

I also adopted, where possible, just doing a fixed number of hours a day and having some days off. For me this usually means that Saturdays and Mondays are not working days. Tight deadlines and heavier than usual workloads sometimes make this impossible, of course, but it worth striving for!

I found Sundays were often my most productive days and meant I was often a day ahead of everyone else come the start of the ‘working’ week. That’s a blessing when you are a freelance!

My next suggestion might not be possible if things get really bad with COVID-19, but I found leaving the house and getting some fresh air was great way to feel as if you had left home ‘to go to work’. Even if this meant just going down to the corner shop for a paper, or a little stroll over the park when I was able to!

Changing habits

My routine when I was fit and able used to be going for early morning swims in the local baths three times a week. This was impossible while undergoing chemo and I didn’t swim at all during 2015. With all local sports centre finally being told to close until the coronavirus is beaten, that’s not even a temptation now.

But I missed those swims during my cancer fight-back year – and will do so again during the coronavirus pandemic – as we early morning bathers were a bit of a clique. But, as with not being able to go to the pub, such sacrifices are necessary!

Like many people, I have been one step ahead of official government advice and have avoided going anywhere but the shops and nearby green belt for some weeks. 

Mind, the hoarding and unpleasantness towards store staff trying their best to fill the supermarket shelves in very different circumstances has been one of the saddest aspects of the current crisis so far.

We all need to stick together to get through things and while I was being treated and recovering from cancer I found the solidarity among the more enlightened fellow patients a great help in getting through the dark patches.  Hopefully, this will be the spirit in fighting COVID-19!

Expect the unexpected

My next bit of advice is expect the unexpected. Things won’t always go to plan when fighting cancer – or something like the coronavirus – and don’t be surprised by a change of direction as the medical experts see that Plan ‘A’ isn’t working and they need to try something else.

I was expecting my first operation to remove the cancerous growth in my bowel before Christmas 2014, but at the last moment scans showed they had to deal with something else first, and I needed five weeks of daily radiotherapy, backed up by chemo tablets, and then ten weeks to recover before I was well enough for the actual operation in April 2015.

I also suffered an incisional hernia a month after my big op and was back in the same bed in same ward at the beginning of June. That was perhaps my darkest hour, as I couldn’t sleep in the noisy hospital ward with five other patients probably going through an even worse ordeal.

Looking ahead 

So, we face some tough times ahead. But remember the experience of even China seems to show that we can hopefully get back to some kind of normality before too long, providing we do what we are told by the medical people and scientists and don’t take unnecessary risks. 

The government needs to sharpen up on its communications as well and say exactly what to do and avoid Boris Johnson type waffle about telling the virus to “get packing” and dithering over whether to order restaurants and bars to close!

We need a Prime Minister who speaks in clear English and not in Daily Star type headlines!

Physical distancing 

So, we must do what needs to be done with social distancing – I hate that term and suggest we all just call it physical distancing – and keep washing our hands for 20 seconds or more every few hours.

Use social media and digital technology to stay in touch with friends and family if you can.

And look out for neighbours and acquaintances who may feel really down with all the isolation and uncertainty. Together, we’ve a better chance of getting through this more or less intact – even if that means relying on digital communications.

See my Cancer-Talk blogs if you are interested in more about my cancer journey.

And watch a great video on how one Italian grandma suggests we get through the strange new world of the coronavirus.