'Rachel Made It Possible To Have A Conversation About Cancer And Not Feel Ashamed'
By Posted on 5 Sep 2018
This summer, we were lucky enough to speak to Rachel Bland alongside Deborah James and Lauren Mahon, her co-hosts on the podcast You, Me And The Big C about how they were determined to keep on living life in the face of their cancer diagnoses (their core message? That they’re ‘too busy living life to worry about dying.’).
Earlier this week, Rachel announced on Twitter that she had just days to live, and passed away at home a few days later.
The day before Rachel died their podcast shot to number one in the iTunes charts__, a fact Deborah says Rachel would have been thrilled at. In an open letter to Rachel she wrote, ‘I know right now you’ll be having the last laugh, knowing your mission to get people talking has started.
‘And we realised your dream, the podcast made it to number one. I know you died knowing this, and I know how happy it would’ve made you. I just wish you were here to celebrate with Lozz and the rest of the team.’
Speaking to Grazia, Deborah said, ‘Rachel made it possible for people to open up a conversation about Cancer and not to feel ashamed. She took it out of the corner and placed it front stage with rawness and honesty, in a bid to address the aspects that people don’t talk about - death, sex, the pain, relationships.’
You can read Deborah’s full piece in next week’s issue of Grazia magazine, out on 11th September. In the meantime, here is the full conversation with Rachel, Deborah and Lauren, published in August 2018.
From learning languages to PhD levels of cosmology, the recent surge in popularity of podcasts has definitely expanded our minds. But a growing number of pods are pushing into those darker crevices we usually leave untouched, like death, life-threatening disease and grief – aiming to light a path that allows for better conversation and less fear.
The most famous is Griefcast hosted by Cariad Lloyd, discussing loss each week with a well-known name – the podcast recently won three awards at the British Podcasting Awards. Search and you’ll find a proliferation of new listens on the subject and, importantly, communities building around them. Psychotherapist and founder of natural supplement brand Eudeamon Jane Barnfield Jukes says that while having conversations with trained specialists helps, opening up to family and friends is the best course of action. ‘Undoubtedly learning and talking more about death or life-limiting illness can only be a good thing. With increased understanding of ourselves and our situation we are more able to make healthier choices for ourselves and those we love.’
One podcast opening those conversations is Radio 5 Live’s You, Me And The Big C–a candid look at cancer from Rachael Bland, Deborah James and Lauren Mahon. The key message is relatability – these women ‘are you… but with dodgier cells and they’re too busy living to worry about dying’. Undoubtedly difficult to listen to at times – pretending everything is easy is as much of an injustice as claiming it’s all doom and gloom – the podcast also explores everything from beauty tips to fertility issues and is a life tonic if you’re affected by the disease or not.
So why are we all newly obsessed when it’d be easier to hide away? ‘They’re universal topics that affect us all,’ says Rachael. ‘Things are changing and people are starting to realise if you talk about scary concepts like illness, grief and death you take some of the power back.’ As the second series begins, we asked the presenters to give us an insight into what happens if the Big C comes knocking at your door.
‘My son is too young to understand my cancer so i’m writing him a book for when i’m gone,’ says Rachael Bland, 40
Freddie climbed into our hotel bed last night, snuggled down and whispered, ‘I missed you Mummy, I love you.’ We’ve come away for what could be our final family holiday. In April, I was given a terminal diagnosis when they told me the aggressive triple-negative breast cancer I’ve been battling since 2016 had spread. I’ve been taking part in clinical trials in the hope of buying more time. Freddie isn’t yet three and knows very little about my cancer.
How can you explain death and loss to a toddler who’s prone to a meltdown if you cut his toast the wrong way? My main fear is he’ll be too young to remember me. The thought of him growing up without my side of the story on so many life lessons was unbearable. That’s why I decided to write my memoir For Freddie for him. I’ve loved writing my blog bigclittleme.co.uk and felt the best way to get my personality down is on paper. I want to fill Fred in on all the stories you hear from your parents – from how I met his daddy (and didn’t realise we’d already worked together) to the magical first time I felt him move in my tummy just as I was about to go live on air.
Whenever my husband Steve reads it, he doesn’t remember half of the same things. He joked the details I’d included about my wedding dress would probably never mean anything to Freddie. But you never know, if he wants to be the next Oscar de la Renta they may be just what interests him!
I didn’t want to worry about Fred ever being without a copy so I’ve found a literary agent and would love to get my memoir published before I die. I need to leave a tangible piece of me behind for Freddie. I hope in the years to come he’ll be proud of me and know how very much I love him.
‘Cancer meant I couldn’t contInue In my career… so I Invented a new one,’ says Lauren Mahon, 32
Slightly worse for wear, with faces smeared with glitter, my friend and I were watching the sun rise over Glastonbury when I felt a painful twinge in my right boob. ‘Feel this babe,’ I said, guiding her hand to the lump I’d found four weeks before. Two months later I’d be told it was cancer – and my world would change forever.
Aged 31, with no family history of cancer and sporting what can best be described as a goodwill gesture for a pair of tits, I was stunned – and to be honest, absolutely livid. Instead of living it up like my mates, I was faced with my own mortality – and over a year’s worth of corrosive treatments.
Determined to retain some sense of self, my plan was for it to be business as usual when it came to my career. But as my body began to wither, my grey matter did too and soon I was no longer fit for purpose in my role as social media whizz kid. I couldn’t run campaigns when I could barely remember my name. A year later, I was ecstatic to start a phased return back to work, but then frustrated to find I couldn’t keep up. I felt bereft and like a total failure. My morale was dented in a way that blindsided me, but I took a leap of faith – during my diagnosis I developed an online community that had somehow grown into a fully-fledged business, GIRLvsCANCER. I’m now three months into being a freelancer, and while I feel like a digital Del Boy at times, I’m running my own business, recording a BBC podcast and collaborating with major brands. It sounds impossible, but cancer gave me the confidence to carve out autonomy over my working life – and it feels amazing.
‘Make-up Is Important – It shows the world I’m not just my cancer,’ says 36-year-old Deborah James
Peering into a bag full of pills designed to do everything from fight my cancer to stop diarrhoea, the golden packaging of my favourite Yves Saint Laurent lipstick glistens back at me – a reminder I’m more than just ‘cancer’. It’s easy for people to forget you’re the same person you were before your diagnosis (for me, the world was whipped from beneath my feet at 35, when I got stage 4 bowel cancer). It’s easy for them to forget I was a deputy headteacher who fought off fears of Ofsted inspectors with a slick of lipstick, someone dedicated to six-inch stilettos, with a wardrobe of gorgeous clothes.
Instead, it’s easy for them to imagine someone in jogging bottoms, grey-skinned, with a headscarf. But that person isn’t me. I understand that is some people, but it’s important to know it’s not everyone and that I wasn’t that person before – so I’m not now. I don’t want to crawl into a hole looking like the dishevelled, half-eaten moth I sometimes feel like on the inside. I’ve always used make-up and clothes to arm myself for battle – and it’s no different today. That’s why I’ve worn leopard-print skirts to chemo, still drink wine in my heels, and covet those YSL lacquers that work best over my now-drier lips. It’s important to feel like me.
My make-up bag is my ‘cancer I’m going to destroy you’ bag of tricks. It helps me face the day and whatever rubbish cancer might throw at me. I love when people tell me, ‘You don’t look like you have cancer.’ I know it’s what’s on the inside that counts, but looking good has its merits. If I’m going down, I’m going down in style.
‘F*** You Cancer’ by Deborah James (@bowelbabe) is out 4 Oct (£9.99, Vermillion). Series Two of You, Me And The Big C is available on bbc.co.uk/5live or via your usual podcast providers now.
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