Last week was one of the saddest that I’ve experienced since being diagnosed with breast cancer.
On Monday, Rachael Bland tweeted, with her usual humour and candidness, that she had only days left to live. Unfortunately, this wasn’t unexpected as she also recently disclosed that her cancer was untreatable and incurable. Then on Wednesday her husband, Steve, announced on Twitter that Rachael had died, aged 40.
I never met Rachael but felt like I knew her. I’m a veteran BBC Radio 5 Live listener and I loved listening to Rachael years before our paths crossed though breast cancer. I remember her being hilarious on the late show with Richard Bacon and her calming voice often got me through my insomniac nights. She was diagnosed in November 2016, nine months after me, (how can she be dead, and I’m still here and clear of cancer?) and it was then that I found her blog, Big C, Little Me, and later her podcast, You, Me & the Big C, that she made with Lauren and Deborah.
We’d exchanged messages about our respective treatments and prognosis and I often messaged her about her Instagram stories. I know that I’m not the only one who felt this way – Rachael had such a warm and welcoming manner. Suffice it to say that the news of her death moved me to tears and left me upset and quite unsettled for the rest of the week.
I’ve been thinking about writing this post since Wednesday but was unsure about what I really wanted to say. Rachael made a huge impact on thousands of people and changed the way that we think and talk about cancer and dying. These two taboo subjects have been dragged out of the shadows and placed at the front of the minds of everyone who’s listened to the You, Me & the Big C podcast.
I think that the episode on dying has to be one of the most poignant pieces of broadcasting that I’ve listened to. Rachael knew that she was dying, yet she managed to be funny and serious in equal measure, going so far as telling Lauren and Deborah what she expected them to wear to her funeral. I think that it’s required listening for everyone.
The use of language was really important to Rachael and it’s a hot topic amongst the cancer community at the moment. Rachael died. She didn’t pass away or slip away. Her family did not lose her, and she didn’t go to sleep. I would like everyone to use the D word when my turn comes. After all, death is the only certainty that we have in life.
Now to tackle the war metaphors which I really dislike in the context of cancer. “She lost her battle with cancer”, “she was a warrior”, “she was so brave”, “she battled to the end” “keep fighting”. Nobody who dies from terminal cancer has lost their battle. To me, this implies that they didn’t try hard enough to stay alive, and the fact that they died makes them a failure. Not all cancer can be cured, and the cancer which people get is down to luck. Indeed, whether or not you get cancer at all is often down to luck.
I was often told that I was brave in the way that I dealt with my cancer and its treatments. I know that this was said to me with love, but I certainly didn’t feel brave. In my mind, what I was doing was not brave. I was doing what was necessary to stay alive. Putting one foot in front of the other and getting on with it. There were many days that I spent crying and curled up in bed, wanting only to be on my own…not so brave.
As I mentioned, I found out about my cancer nine months before Rachael did. I was a very lucky woman and Rachael wasn’t. My tumour was hormone driven and therefore drugs, in addition to surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, such as Tamoxifen or Anastrozole would hopefully stop it from coming back. Additionally, it was HER2+ which means I could have Herceptin injections every three weeks for a year – another preventative treatment. My cancer had not spread outside of my breast; my lymph nodes were clear.
Rachael’s cancer was triple negative; a fast growing, aggressive type of breast cancer which can only be treated by surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As yet, there are no other forms of treatment. There is no single type of breast cancer. Mine is different to Rachael’s and there will be differences between mine and the other patients in the breast clinic on the day that I was diagnosed.
I feel lucky that today I’m a cancer survivor. I know that my cancer may recur, but I don’t worry about that anymore. I’ve had all the possible treatments to try to ensure that it doesn’t, and I now try to live in the present. I can’t change the past and the future isn’t here yet. Today is all I have, and I’ll try to make it a good one.