Rachael Bland's widower Steve: There can be happiness after cancer

Rachael Bland, Lauren Mahon and Deborah James (BBC/PA)
Lisa Salmon

Nearly five years after his late wife Rachael Bland started the award-winning podcast You, Me and the Big C following her breast cancer diagnosis, Steve Bland has recorded one of its final episodes, saying it is possible to “be happy again and full of life again”.

BBC presenter Rachael died from the disease in September 2018 at the age of 40, and her co-host Dame Deborah James – known by her social media handle Bowelbabe – died from bowel cancer in June last year, also aged 40.

The show’s third presenter, Lauren Mahon, was recently given the five-year all-clear from breast cancer, and has continued to host the podcast alongside Steve. The pair have just recorded their penultimate episode in front of a live audience, as part of a BBC Radio 5 Live ‘day of hope’.

“I’d love it if people could look at us and see that it’s possible to come out the other side and be happy again and live a full life again,” Steve says, who is expecting twins with his new wife Amy, who he met a year after Rachael died.

His seven-year-old son Freddie was only a week away from his third birthday when his mum Rachael died. Now he’s “buzzing” about becoming a brother, kissing Amy’s tummy every night.

“He’s going to be a great big brother, he’s very excited,” Steve says.

Rachael Bland, Lauren Mahon and Deborah James (BBC/PA)

Adding: “We’re going to literally have both hands full. We’re just so excited about it – we’ve got over the shock of finding out it was twins, and now we’re in the shock of buying two of everything.”

Before her death, Steve says he and Rachael had “very open conversations” about what she wanted for his future.

“When she died I was under no illusions about what I should be doing,” he explains. “She was very clear in saying ‘I want you to be happy and I want you to live life.

“It wasn’t as specific as, ‘You must go and meet someone’, it was just, ‘Be happy’, whatever that means. And for our little boy, he had his whole life ahead of him. What use was I if I was going to be just a big sad sack all the time?

“We were very clear from day one that it was going to take a while, it wasn’t going to be a  quick-fix or an easy process, but I knew and I was determined that life was going to be good again.”

There will be just one more episode of You, Me and the Big C presented by Steve and Lauren because they say it’s simply the right time to move on – but both hope someone else will take it over.

“We really, really hope the podcast has got a big future because it’s such an important resource for so many people and it’d be such a shame if it were to draw to a close,” says Steve.

“For us, we feel like our stories are less relevant to someone who’s going through it now, but we hope we can find some other people who’ve got the same energy that the girls had when they started it, the same passion and fire and the same desire to help – that would be amazing.”

Lauren says You, Me And The Big C has been like “a massive group therapy session” – but she’s ready to “not live in the trauma any more” through the podcast.

“More than anything I think stepping back from the pod will give me chance to grieve for my friends, because we lost the girls and then we were back in the studio recording,” she says. “I think that’s really needed.”

The hit podcast won acclaim for its candid discussions about the practicalities of living with cancer, from hair loss to dealing with finances.

Lauren says she feels “100%” sure that people spoke to her differently once they knew she had cancer.

“You stop being Lozza and you start being ‘my friend who’s got cancer’. A lot of people look at you like a walking death sentence, which is really hard,” she says.

“Cancer was a big taboo, the conversation wasn’t normalised and people didn’t know what to expect, they didn’t know what it would look likem” Steve adds. “You only see what’s on TV and in the media, and people don’t understand it.

“I think we all need to get better at knowing what to say, otherwise you get situations where people going through cancer feel even more isolated than they did already, they feel like it’s something they can’t talk about and they have to bottle it up.

“One of the big points of the podcast was to say just be normal, be a friend, treat your mate like you treated them before they had cancer, make a joke – just normalising that conversation.

Deborah James and Steve Bland with the award for Best Podcast (Ian West/PA)

“A big part of the podcast was making it alright to talk about. It was these three amazing women going through a really difficult time who were talking and joking about it like it was Eastenders and they were down the pub or whatever.

“Even when Rachael was dying, her and Deborah were sending each other Grim Reaper gifts. Not that it’s always a situation to laugh at, but one of the points of the podcast was making it not something to be ashamed of and something we could talk about.”

You, Me and the Big C is available on BBC Sounds from January 30.