Sometimes, you meet someone who reminds you what is important in life – in my case You me and the big C podcast’s Steve Bland.
It’s been a long time since I lost my own mother far too young to breast cancer and though she is far from forgotten, the pain of that loss has eased with time.
For Steve Bland, husband of the late Rachael Bland, the grief is still raw but as he looks forward to life with their son Freddie, four, he is making sure her legacy of awareness lives on.
The following article was formed from part of the Grin and Tonic show I co-present on BBC Radio Lancashire with Gemma Ray and has also been published in JPI North West newspapers including Lancashire Post and Wigan Post.
It was a gentle celebration, registered briefly, as Rachael passed in and out of consciousness.
Finally the You, me and the big C podcast had reached number one in the chart.
A fleeting but meaningful happy moment between husband and wife just days before Rachael died of the breast cancer she had been diagnosed with less than two years earlier after finding a lump in her armpit, as Steve Bland explained.
“Rachael was a newsreader and presenter on BBC Five Live and bits on bobs on NW Tonight on TV as well, filling in,” he says.
“In November 2016 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and not too long after that she started blogging.
“She was getting her story out – and it became a really good avenue for her. As a journalist it was a natural thing for her to share and write about it.”
The blog soon became Rachael’s therapy.
“It helped her process it,” says Steve, 39.
“When she had a bad day and thought she was going to die she was able to write in her blog and present a more balanced opinion against what was the catastrophic, negative, scenario in her head.
“In 2017 we had the idea of doing the podcast when we were sat at home.
“I was also in radio. I worked at Radio 5 Live as a producer from 2010 and was in newspapers before that.
“So she approached the powers that be and they were keen and supportive but also thinking it was maybe too niche and – would she be well enough to do it?
“Her treatment was off and on and her health was here there and everywhere.
“But she recruited these other two girls – Debbie James and Lauren Mahon – who she hadn’t met but became friends with on social media.
“And the first time they met in person was the first recording of the podcast.
“Mike and Al are our producers – Mike is a fantastic producer – he’d been drafted in to do the production side and they were all sat in the studio and recorded it all got on like a house on fire.
“Then on the way out they said how amazing it was as they had only just met that day.
“Mike was like, what?!”
“It was like instant chemistry, they got on so well.”
He explained Lauren had breast cancer – she is now in remission – and Deborah (known online as Bowel Babe) is still in the middle of her treatment for stage four bowel cancer.
“They got on so well and it really took off,” says Steve.
“Unfortunately Rachel’s health went downhill and she died in September 2018 – the podcast was only going six or seven months at that point. She had a mastectomy and it came back in the skin on her scar.”
She was aged just 40.
“But the podcast got a life of its own, which was incredible.” continued Steve.
“It made people feel less alone. They saw these three young attractive women and it wasn’t what the image of cancer is – the conversations were very open and honest.
“They were getting on with their lives – carrying on well – they were having good lives! Not the version often portrayed in the wider media.”
Steve said listening to the podcast even helped him.
“One in particular helped me with the very last few weeks of her life. It was on death with Greg Wise the actor.
“We talked very openly at home so there weren’t very many revelations but sometimes she would reveal a little bit too much about our home life maybe! The girls are very inquisitive.
“As it moved along it became obvious how much the pod meant to people – they were massively engaged a and really need it every week.
“A few days before Rachael died Mike – our producer – decided it would be great to get the podcast to the top of the chart.
“Chris Stark from Radio One got on board and he recruited all these top pop stars asking them to tweet about it, gathering support to get it number one.
Steve says: “She wasn’t well and in and out of consciousness – but she raised her fist and did a little yes!”
Rachael messaged the girls imploring them carry on the pod a few days before she died.
“Then it was a question of how they did that,” says Steve.
“They tried one by themselves and it was OK. But the feeling was they needed someone else – to watch the clock – which was Rachael’s speciality.
“The first time I ever talked about Rachael’s death publicly was on the podcast – it just sort of worked. I bring something a little bit different from the perspective of someone who has cared for and lost someone from cancer.
“It’s been brilliant – sort of like my therapy. Talking openly and honestly about stuff.
“The two girls are unique – Lauren is 35, Debs is 38 and they are so full of life and energy and determination to make a difference to people with cancer – an absolute joy!”
And very – almost too – honest he admits.
“You only get the edited version!”
He said the two girls go through so much – Debbie with her reactions for trial treatments and Lauren – who has had to undergo early menopause through her treatment but is currently cancer-free.
Remarkably the former style-blogger launched a movement GIRLvsCANCER early on in her treatment, which has provided inspiration to many – and was how she first touched base with Rachael.
Steve is now a single dad to little Freddie, four.
“It’s hard, I’m not going to lie but also wonderful and a massive honour to be his dad.
“I’m lucky I’ve got a very supportive family. We are very close – my parents, my sister and her family, which makes it a lot easier. But it’s intense. You can’t just take time off, not be a parent for a few hours without a babysitter.
“He was so young he didn’t really understand. He was a week or so short of his third birthday. It’s double-edged – in one way it’s good as he accepts it on a really simplistic level but on the flip side she was worried he wouldn’t remember her.”
But Rachael came up with a solution to this dilemma and sat down and started to write.
“About May time she just stated writing things down on her laptop,” says Steve.
“The idea to give something for Freddie. She wanted him to know who she was in her words.
All the stories from when she was a kid – we only knew each other eight years – so I didn’t know it all.
“So then she got a book agent and over July and August she wrote 86,000 words, 60,000 in just August! When she was quite poorly.
“I’d read back every chapter.
“One night I was crying as it was so unfair she had to do it but you have to admire the dedication.”
Her book ‘For Freddie’ came out in February and hit the best-seller lists.
When Rachael died she left very strict instructions – what she called ‘death admin’ though Steve admits they had to up the venue for the memorial.
“It was a real lesson to me. If she can be like that when she knew she was going to die – how can WE not talk more openly about cancer?”
One subject Steve is open about is the next chapter – and facing dating after loss.
“My thing is I don’t decide how I would feel about a thing before it happens.
“You don’t know how you will feel.
I do feel now that I would be open to giving it a go and if it was the right person I’d know fairly quickly.”
He said he doesn’t feel judged about when he should find a new partner even though some people do like to have a say!
“People don’t understand and think they are entitled to an opinion.
“An insurance company did a survey and they had asked how long should a widow/widower wait before dating.
“This is wrong on so many levels – to even ask the question in the first place!”
He explained that the grieving process for Rachael began before she even died.
“Finding out someone has cancer – it fundamentally changes a relationship from that point. It’s not for a second that I’m over it or moving on.“
“Anyone I do meet will have to come on board with Rachael and Freddie.
“It’s a part of my life I’m really proud of.
“But I’m open to living my life.”
Steve is looking forward to 2020 with optimism.
Look up the You, me and the big C podcast HERE
HELP AND ADVICE IS AVAILABLE
Coppafeel.org offers straightforward advice to help check for lumps – plus get alerts reminding you to check
Cancerresearchuk.org If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or know someone who has, Cancer Research provides practical advice on everything from symptoms and screening, to coping after treatment.
Macmillan.org The Macmillan Support Line offers confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones. Call free on 0808 808 00 00, seven days a week, 8am – 8pm You can also write in or chat online.
Look up https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cancer/ for general advice.