My friend and colleague Rachael Bland died last week, aged 40. She didn’t ‘lose her battle’ with breast cancer. There are no winners. She fought so damn hard. She didn’t ‘succumb to the disease’. Cancer cruelly took my best friend and there was nothing she could do apart from face her final curtain with utter bravery by lifting the veil on cancer.
She made it possible for people to start a conversation about cancer and not feel ashamed. She placed it front of stage in a bid to address the aspects people don’t talk about when it comes to cancer – facing death, having sex, the pain and impact on relationships.
The podcast she created, You, Me And The Big C (which I’m honoured to have co-presented) was, in the words of 5 Live controller Jonathan Wall, ‘One of the most important pieces of broadcasting I have ever heard.’ He added, our ‘About Death’ episode was ‘the best piece I’ve heard in 26 years’.
The podcast shot to the number one spot in the charts the day before she died, and I feel an immense sense of pride in what we’ve started. There was a need to have these conversations.
Rachael accepted her fate and addressed the conversation around it head on. We asked her if she was scared of dying (her answer: no – she was only worried for those she left behind) and what her greatest wish was for the future (that her son, Freddie, know what kind of person his mummy was).
Diagnosed with cancer in November 2016, Rachael was told it was terminal in May this year – she’d got her head around her life ending and clearly outlined her wishes for the podcast to continue. But she never accepted that she would not see her two-year-old, Freddie, grow up.
It was why, a month ago, she decided to write him a book. When she died, she’d completed 80,000 words – charting all the things she knew she wouldn’t be there for, from the importance of wearing high-factor sunscreen to how she met her husband and his dad, Steve.
I met Rach online. She reached out to me in the hope of finding a friend who knew exactly what she was thinking. We were both passionate about raising awareness and then she said, ‘I want to do something and I want to do it with you.’ I’ve since learned from Steve that she was worried I’d say no! I was honoured to be asked.
Writing today, I’m not a cancer survivor. I haven’t won. I accept that I, like Rach, have little control over my bowel cancer. I too am someone who can only learn to ‘live with it’. And what I’ve learned from Rachael is that you can live, even if you are dying.
I will miss her incredible ability to laugh in the darkness. She was the one I’d text at 3am when my fears were taking over. She was the only one who knew exactly how I felt when my cancer returned. How did she deal with it? She listened, told me to wipe away my tears, have a glass of rosé and carry on living. Then she sent me death jokes.
So, I’ll wipe my tears Rach, as hard as it is, and I’ll raise a glass to everything we did. I promise we will continue what we started. I just hope I can do it with even a drop of your humour and courage.
You, Me And The Big C is available from all podcast providers