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Mark Andrews – sometimes we all need to reflect on what we are doing with life

All seemed well with the world. It was a gorgeous sunny day, I was driving home with the roof down, and then my phone rang.

Pulling over to a safe spot at the side of the road, I took the call, which was from my GP. He inquired about my brief stay in hospital earlier in the week, and asked if I had a chest X-ray.

This was clearly a rhetorical question, given that he had a copy of the X-ray in front of him.

"There is a shadow on the lungs," he said, matter-of-factually. "It could be one of many things..."

With the benefit of hindsight, no sentence from a doctor beginning: "It could be one of many things" is going to end well. He was softening me up for the blow. And he delivered a big one.

"It could be lung cancer."

The news came precisely a month after I had been discharged from hospital after a heart attack. As the late football manager Tommy Docherty once said: "As one door shuts, another one slams in your face."

By the way, I'm sorry for bringing the heart attack up again. A close colleague and dear friend recently pointed out that I do seem to have been writing about the old ticker rather a lot since my return to work a few weeks ago, and for that I apologise.

The problem is, something like that does tend to dominate your life. Normally in this column I would write about my latest inept attempt at DIY or home improvements, my failures at gardening, some mishap or misunderstanding as I go about my daily life, or the sheer exhilaration of trying out my latest power tool. But since I have spent most of the past two months unable to do anything more strenuous than putting the bins out, the experiences I can write about are rather limited.

Anyway, back to the lungs. To begin with I was not unduly concerned, it was surely just a precaution. He asked me if I had been coughing much, I told him a little. Did I feel breathless? Well when I did my daily walks along the canal, as part of my rehab regime, but isn't that normal after a heart attack? Was I coughing up blood? No. Did I smoke? Never.

"I would say from what you have told me is that the risk is low," he replied.

It was only later in the day that the news started to filter through. I had told the doctor I wasn't aware of any discomfort in the lungs, but the night before I had suffered a sharp pain in the back of the throat while walking. While I hadn't coughed up any blood lately, I had done at the start of last year, when I had what I assumed had been coronavirus. Was it really Covid, or was it something more sinister? And while I had never smoked, a few years ago I had rather foolishly stripped a textured ceiling which I later discovered may have contained asbestos.

The internet can be a wonderful tool, but it doesn't half scare the pants off you sometimes. Trying to stick to the more reputable sources of information, I read that if I were to be diagnosed with lung cancer, I stood of 40-50 per cent chance of surviving another 12 months. And I think that was meant to reassure me.

Once the initial shock had worn off, and I had finished sharing the news with people who I had previously been boring the pants off with tales about my heart attack, a bit of perspective returned. The doctor had said the risk was low, it was surely more likely to be something to do with Covid. I also found that a surprising number of people had been through the same thing, and that it usually turned out to be something quite minor.

But it also set me thinking. If I did only have 12 months to live, what would I do with my remaining time? The initial thought was to blow all my savings on a dream car. I'm a sucker for flash cars, so why not go out with a bang? And food and drink. If I've only got a year left, I'm going to live it up.

But then, when I thought about it more carefully, I wondered if I would really want to meet my maker in a year-or-so's time having lived my last few months in such a self-centred manner. Maybe what I really ought to do would be to use my remaining time on earth doing something useful to help others. I've no idea what – who would want my help? – but there must be something.

Anyhow, as I write I have just received the results of my second X-ray – it's an all-clear, no need for further action. I don't have a terminal illness, and it's back to business as usual. Or is it?

While a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders, I hope I have learned a few lessons from the experience. First, while I have been lucky, there will be many other people who will today, and every day, receive news that is not so good. I really ought to stop griping.

I won't of course, the truth is I'm never happy unless I'm angry about something. But at least I recognise that and don't expect people to take me to seriously. And the least I can do is take a few moments each day to think of those less fortunate than myself.

Secondly, it shouldn't take a brush with death to make any of us think about how we can make a difference to others. I suspect that deep down, we all want to do that, but we become so bogged down with our own problems that we don't see the bigger picture. But the fact that I may well have decades rather than months ahead of me should be seen as an opportunity to do something useful, not an excuse to retreat back into my own little world.

And the third lesson? Well it's not so much for me, but maybe for some of you. If you smoke, please give up. It's really not worth it.

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