The Big C

Meet the women be­hind the hit can­cer pod­cast

The Observer - The New Review - - Front page - – with Jude Rogers

It’s a balmy sum­mer’s day at Sal­ford’s Me­dia City, sun stream­ing through the win­dows of Quay House’s fifth floor, where a pop­u­lar Ra­dio 5 Live pod­cast, You, Me and the Big C, is be­ing recorded. On one side of the screen sits pro­ducer Mike Holt, a lovely bear of a man in a lum­ber­jack shirt – he’s usu­ally found pro­duc­ing the boxing show Fighting Talk. Next to him are BBC shift worker Alex Healey drink­ing a sugar-free Red Bull, and as­sis­tant pro­ducer Alex En­twistle (“there’s no H in my ’wis­tle,” he points out, help­fully). The mood is one of fast-paced, driv­e­time-flavoured perk­i­ness. “Don’t be fooled,” Mike says brightly. “We were all cry­ing two hours ago.” On the other side of the screen, Rachael Bland, Deb­o­rah James, and Lau­ren Ma­hon are laugh­ing, as they of­ten do. “You’ve got a tu­mour on your liver – that’s good news!” Bland says, talk­ing about her­self with­out draw­ing breath. “Well, not good news, but that means it’s big enough to be mea­sured as a marker, which means you’re on the trial [she is one of 150 pa­tients world­wide on a new ex­per­i­men­tal trial be­ing man­aged for her by Manch­ester’s Christie NHS Foun­da­tion Trust].” Sun colum­nist Deb­o­rah James sits next to her in a leop­ard­skin shirt, brunette curls loose on her shoul­ders – she of­ten goes off on a tangent, Holt says (“it’s like herd­ing cats with her”). Ma­hon sits far right, jok­ing about re­cov­ery rate data in her broad cock­ney. “I mean, I’m wip­ing my bum with the stats now!” It’s like lis­ten­ing in to three rau­cous friends in the pub.

Launched in March, the BBC pod­cast is about some­thing that on pa­per sounds very hard to sell: what

it’s like to have can­cer, pre­sented by a woman who has it (Bland), and two who have re­cently gone into re­mis­sion (James and Ma­hon). Con­sis­tently pop­u­lar on the over­all iTunes chart, You, Me and the Big C peaked in March at No 3, with a glut of five-star ratings. Bland, 40, a BBC News and 5 Live pre­sen­ter, is its de facto host. James, 36, is a deputy head­teacher turned Sun can­cer colum­nist, while Ma­hon, 32, blogs at Gir­lvsCancer. Her site’s tagline is “for badass women mak­ing can­cer their b*tch”. Its main pic­ture is of her top­less, two mid­dle fin­gers cov­er­ing her nip­ples.

To­day’s record­ing has been par­tic­u­larly tough. Bland an­nounced two days ear­lier on her blog, Big C Lit­tle Me, that her can­cer has re­turned, and is now classed as metastatic, which means it’s es­sen­tially in­cur­able. “I feel like a grenade with the pin out,” her post goes. “Just wait­ing for some odd sen­sa­tions to ap­pear. Tick tock.”

You won­der about the ef­fects of di­vulging such dev­as­tat­ing per­sonal news, but this show has been a rock, Bland in­sists, as the record­ing wraps up and we de­camp to a ta­ble in the BBC’s of­fices. “We wanted to cre­ate a space where you feel like you’re sit­ting down with girls like you, hav­ing a cup of tea, talk­ing about it like it’s EastEn­ders. Do you know what I mean?” She speaks se­ri­ously, with­out irony. “Be­cause when you have a con­ver­sa­tion about it, you nor­malise it.”

Not that Bland was sure the show would work – she hadn’t even met her col­leagues un­til the first day of record­ing. But since then they have ex­plored many is­sues, such as mental health, money, fer­til­ity and chemo­ther­apy, with aplomb. “We never imag­ined it would have worked out this way, ac­tu­ally. Did you, at the start of this?” Bland turns to her friends, one by one. James gurns and shakes her head. Lau­ren Ma­hon agrees: “Je­sus, no.” “But it’s pro­vided me with so much strength,” Bland con­tin­ues, “and if we don’t record to­gether, we re­ally miss each other.”

You, Me and the Big C started to come to­gether in Jan­uary after Bland went to her BBC bosses with an idea. She was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer in Novem­ber 2016 after find­ing a lump un­der her arm; she had just fin­ished breast­feed­ing her son, Fred­die, now two, and was try­ing for an­other child with her hus­band, Steve. The sim­ple act of putting these sen­tences to pa­per cre­ates an air of tragic nar­ra­tive, of course, but these are sim­ply some of the facts about Rachael Bland’s life. There are oth­ers, which is why her pod­cast ex­ists.

Bland found reg­u­lar ad­vice chan­nels and fo­rums un­help­ful, an ex­pe­ri­ence the other two echo – “I got handed a leaflet in the hospi­tal,” says Ma­hon, lean­ing in, “and I looked at this woman on it, ill, with a scarf on her head, and went, uh-uh, that’s not me” (she was di­ag­nosed with grade 3 breast can­cer in 2016, a few months be­fore Bland). More use­ful were the like-minded souls Bland dis­cov­ered on so­cial me­dia, par­tic­u­larly on In­sta­gram Sto­ries, where lots of women – al­though there are men too, she adds quickly, and many young peo­ple – post about liv­ing their or­di­nary lives around their treat­ment. “You re­alise quickly that ev­ery­body feels re­ally lonely. But these two” – she jabs out her thumbs at her friends – “were my ab­so­lute favourites.”

We talk about how lit­tle the com­mu­nity as­pect of so­cial me­dia is cel­e­brated to­day, par­tic­u­larly the ways it helps women join to­gether in end­lessly pos­i­tive ways; against sex­ism, sure, but also by un­der­lin­ing the lan­guage in which women ac­tu­ally speak. “You also don’t want to talk to some­one you’ve known all your life when you’ve got can­cer,” James adds (she was di­ag­nosed with stage 4 bowel can­cer in De­cem­ber 2016). “You want to talk to some­body who un­der­stands what it’s ac­tu­ally like.”

The pod­cast stu­dio space seems to take all fil­ters away, be­com­ing a con­fes­sional booth. Then the in­evitable hap­pens: your fam­ily and friends lis­ten in. “And they all find out things. Like your dad said it was the first time he’d re­alised…” Bland turns to James. “What did he say on the pod?” “It was the first time he’d re­alised how scared I was of my own can­cer be­cause I’d never re­ally spo­ken about it,” says James. She is re­fer­ring to a par­tic­u­larly mov­ing show in April, which saw the women step aside for Bland’s hus­band, James’s fa­ther, and Ma­hon’s brother to speak to­gether about their ex­pe­ri­ences, along with cricket com­men­ta­tor Jonathan Agnew, whose wife has had breast can­cer. (5 Live com­men­ta­tors are of­ten added to the show’s mix, and the var­ied sto­ries from fa­mil­iar voices works bril­liantly.)

There have been some lively record­ings. One day in April, Deb­o­rah turned up in what she calls her “poo suit”: a poo-emoji fancy dress out­fit sized for a sixyear-old. “I bought it when I was still a lit­tle bit ine­bri­ated from the gen­eral anaes­thetic,” James ex­plains; she wore it dur­ing Bowel Can­cer Aware­ness Week, know­ing that peo­ple would won­der why she was dressed that way on so­cial me­dia, and then dis­cover her talk­ing about the symp­toms sooner than they would read a leaflet. Then there was the fer­til­ity episode fea­tur­ing Olympian ath­lete Steve Barry, who had a tes­ti­cle re­moved as part of his treat­ment. The mo­ment where Ma­hon in­quires if he now pro­duces half of what he used to is price­less.

The women got crit­i­cism, of course, for not in­clud­ing men in their pre­sent­ing team. “Lit­er­ally be­fore the pod­cast had even launched,” Ma­hon moans. “I’m sorry, I can’t talk about tes­tic­u­lar can­cer, my love, I don’t have balls, con­trary to ru­mour.” She shrugs. “There’s al­ways go­ing to be some­one who’ll be like, ‘All right, princess, calm down’, isn’t there? Oh no, you’re one of those. Blocked.” The show’s bold humour hasn’t en­coun­tered much crit­i­cism, how­ever – the pre­sen­ters know that it helps draws peo­ple into a sub­ject that might oth­er­wise be too dif­fi­cult to con­tem­plate.

The episode in which the women go from dis­cussing fer­til­ity to how they told their chil­dren about their can­cer, to my ears, is the tough­est – James’s chil­dren, Hugo and Eloise, are old enough to un­der­stand its im­pli­ca­tions, she says, be­ing nine and seven re­spec­tively. I broach the sub­ject gen­tly to­day con­sid­er­ing Bland’s news; James wells up, and the sub­ject moves along quickly. “Some top­ics are so close to where it re­ally hurts, they’re, you know…” She stops. “It’s quite emo­tional.” And yes, they’ve had melt­downs after record­ing some episodes. “It is the pro­cess­ing of a trauma,” Ma­hon says. “But the re­ward – that sense of unity, that we’re in this to­gether, and know­ing that it’s helping other peo­ple... I’ll take that any day.”

And yes, the women cry as much as they laugh, they say. There were tears again at the end of to­day’s record­ing, when James’s on­col­o­gist cred­ited her for her at­ti­tude through­out her treat­ment (the women are de­lighted by the pos­i­tive feed­back they’ve had from doc­tors and nurses lis­ten­ing to the show). Are there things they’d never dis­cuss? No, they in­sist. What’s more, they’re fac­ing Rachael’s di­ag­no­sis in the only way they know how: they’ve just an­nounced a new se­ries, which be­gins record­ing in a few months. A few months ago, Bland had mes­saged her col­leagues to say she wasn’t sure she was go­ing to make it to the end of the se­ries. “And Debs was like: ‘Shut up, Rachael, stop be­ing so over­dra­matic.’ Which is ex­actly what I wanted to hear.”

I looked at this woman on the leaflet, ill, with a scarf on her head, and thought uh-uh, that’s not me’

You, Me and the Big C is avail­able to down­load now on iTunes and BBC iPlayer

Por­trait by Mark Waugh

ABOVE

Left to right: 5Live pre­sen­ter Rachael Bland, blog­ger Lau­ren Ma­hon and teacher turned jour­nal­ist Deb­o­rah James, pho­tographed in Sal­ford for the Ob­server.

ABOVE

James, Bland and Ma­hon in the record­ing stu­dio: ‘When we don’t record we miss each other.’ BBC

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