When it gets really bad, he takes painkillers. “I don’t like it and I’ve managed to wean myself off it. But that’s right now – and that might not be true for tomorrow. One thing you learn is that with cancer, every day is a different day.
Born in Sri Lanka, the middle child of a family of five and the only boy, his parents Donald and Therese – Tamil Catholics, a minority group in the island’s population – left for South Africa. the West when Alagiah was six years old, deciding (correctly, as later history has shown) that they would not have a fair chance in their own country. “It’s really hard there now,” he says, based on regular conversations with cousins still in Sri Lanka. “In the midst of the economic collapse, there is a widespread feeling of ‘how did this happen’. Bad leadership is certainly one of them.
His father started working as an engineer in Ghana. At 11, Alagiah was sent – as his sisters before him had been – to a Catholic boarding school in Portsmouth. Did faith stay with him or offer him comfort in coping with a stage four cancer diagnosis? There is no step five. “I envy people who have faith. My family home was a very Catholic home. We ended the day by sitting down and reciting the rosary. So I understand it, but I’m afraid I don’t have it anymore. He thinks for a moment. “That said, we light candles in churches when we go there occasionally, around Christmas. Call it a habit, call it a superstition. I call it comforting. It’s almost meditative.
He began his career as a journalist in 1982 at the international magazine Sud, where he became Africa editor, before joining the BBC seven years later. For the next decade he was a foreign correspondent, including a stint based in Johannesburg, winning a Royal Television Society award in 1993 and a Bafta in 2000.
“My career has taken me to some of the most dangerous places on the planet”
With two growing sons – Adam and Matthew (both in their thirties, the latter following in his father’s footsteps in the media) – he returned to Britain in the early 2000s and landed the lead role at Six O’Clock News, as it was, in 2007. It has been, he says, a blessed life. “I had an amazing gift of a lifetime for a man who was born in a house without proper toilets. By the way, we weren’t poor, but that was how it was in Sri Lanka in the 1950s To have ended up where I am now: why not be grateful?
His public profile made it inevitable, when he shared his cancer diagnosis in 2014, that there would be steps from charities wanting to implicate him. But at first he resisted. Thereafter there were podcasts for BowelCancerUK – and now these photographs of Rankin for Macmillan Cancer Support, which accompany the announcement of its annual Coffee Morning fundraising event later this month.
“You can’t get a cancer diagnosis without knowing Macmillan because they’re everywhere,” he explains. “I’m not afraid of vulnerability or saying I’m vulnerable, so I’m a little surprised that I kept seeing these leaflets and pamphlets, but somehow, I I had in mind that if I went to Macmillan, I would say to myself it’s over. This is clearly nonsense. But, at this point, I was beginning to understand this disease and I was told that I had to settle my business, I desperately wanted to get better, I was worried about my family and all these different emotions, anyone who has lived with cancer will know that.
The struggle to adapt lasted about a year, he recalls. “There was this feeling of abandonment, of ‘God, I let these young men [his sons] and my wife. And then there were people saying “come help us with the campaign”. I vividly remember thinking that I didn’t want to be defined by my illness.
Now he realizes he has something to contribute. “Each of us has to find our own way of doing it. You can be there or in the background. My relationship with Macmillan is more of the latter – not too much there.
Her approach is different from that of Dame Deborah James, the campaigner who also had bowel cancer and died in June, eight years after her diagnosis. The two weren’t close, he says, but their only meeting is firmly in his memory. “We had a mutual friend. When my cancer got into my lungs, they arranged for us to have a conversation because it got into theirs too. When I called her she was coming out of the Marsden [London’s leading cancer hospital], having had her own regular scan to see if the cancer was spreading. That day was fine. Alagiah told him he would call back, that the most important thing was to rush home and tell his family. “But she stopped and talked to me for half an hour. I was so privileged to have had the chance to speak to him.
His main contribution to promoting the message of hope that you can live and live well with cancer was to keep reading the news on the BBC. He doesn’t like the “martial” language of disease control – “who am I in a battle with? Me? My own cells, and they became Awol” – but he never wanted to hide or turn his back on the work he had done his entire adult life.