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Life as an NHS nurse in the 1940s: ‘You have to forget about yourself’

The early days of the NHS were so exciting. We never had any doubt that it would work. I was in the first cohort of training nurses, in a hospital in Lincoln, just shy of 18 years old. In our first nine months, we weren’t allowed to do anything technical, but just made ourselves useful – we helped in the kitchen, passed things to the doctors, and studied in technical college at the same time. Then we went to PTS [preliminary training school], where we learned how to give bed baths, do dressings, take temperatures and make poultices. It was hard work, and we had to be in at 11pm at night. And remember there was nothing disposable back then – aprons, syringes, everything had to be boiled. And we never wore gloves, apart from in the theatre.

Nursing during the polio epidemic has never left me, really. I remember some of the nurses went home, they were so frightened by the isolation hospital. I had to nurse people in iron lungs, including a lovely little girl who was only six. She was a great fan of [the radio thriller] Dick Barton, and I remember the chap who played him coming to see her. Years later, I read she died, and found out she had been the youngest person to live in an iron lung. I think of the progress we’ve made with ventilators, and I see her.

To learn to cope as a nurse, you’ve got to have the ability to forget about yourself. You have to strengthen that ability to focus on the people you’re looking after. I still take that rule. If you dwelled on your own feelings, you’d be overcome.

There was so much money coming into the NHS in its early days. Before, hospitals had [separate] concertina screens, and now we had [fitted] curtains! Lincoln had a lot of industry back then, and we had a lot of men coming in with hot metal in their eyes from the furnaces. The best part of the job was the satisfaction you felt when you were on night shift, making the beds on one side of the ward, making the patients comfortable. That was lovely.

Evelyn Lamb photographed at her home in New Milton.


Evelyn Lamb photographed at her home in New Milton. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

Lincoln had a student nurse committee quite early, and a hospital representative committee – I was on both, and that stood my work in good stead. Listening to those voices is so important. I left Lincoln after getting married and had three children, but picked up part-time district nursing around that. District nursing was always changing, with different managers having different ideas. We should look to that managerial level when we think about the NHS now. Managers need to think about how to make better use of the skills of their staff. Skills aren’t properly used, and when you’re using your skills, you enjoy your job.

Since retiring, I’ve carried on being a champion of the NHS. We don’t realise how fortunate we are to have it. Two years ago, I fell and fractured my femur. I had to be screwed together and everyone who looked after me was wonderful. To not have to worry when something like that happens, to be looked after properly, for everyone to be treated the same, is what it’s all about. Imagine having to find the money to get yourself an ambulance right there and then.

When I look back at my early days, I can relate to Call the Midwife very much. I can’t relate to Casualty or Holby City at all! It’s not the NHS that’s failed people. It’s certain people within it. But I loved nursing – I never wanted to do anything else.

My advice for anyone starting today would be to keep on learning and studying. All my life I worked for improved academic support for nurses – it makes such a difference. This sounds strange, but you’ve got to be a toucher too. You’ve got to be comfortable with putting your arm around a stranger. And you’ve got to like people. That’s the most important thing of all.

Nathan Myhrvold: ‘Nasa doesn’t want to admit it’s wrong about asteroids’

Nathan Myhrvold is the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, founder of the controversial patent asset company Intellectual Ventures and the main author of the six-volume, 2,300-page Modernist Cuisine cookbook, which explores the science of cooking. Currently, he is taking on Nasa over its measurement of asteroid sizes.

For the past couple of years, you’ve been fighting with Nasa about its analysis of near-Earth asteroid size. You’ve just published a 33-page scientific paper criticising the methods used by its Neowise project team to estimate the size and other properties of approximately 164,000 asteroids. You have also published a long blog post explaining the problem. Where did Nasa go wrong and is it over or underestimating size?
Nasa’s Wise space telescope [Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer] measured the asteroids in four different wavelengths in the infrared. My main beef is with how they analysed that data. What I think happened is they made some poor choices of statistical methods. Then, to cover that up, they didn’t publish a lot of the information that would help someone else replicate it. I’m afraid they have both over- and underestimated. The effect changes depending on the size of the asteroid and what it’s made of. The studies were advertised as being accurate to plus or minus 10%. In fact, it is more like 30-35%. That’s if you look overall. If you look at specific subsets some of them are off by more than 100%. It’s kind of a mess.

Why does it matter? As you admit in your blogpost, obsessively arguing over the size of rocks that are millions of miles away may appear esoteric.
Asteroids are very important. They tell us a lot about the origin of the solar system. The work of hundreds of scientists has been based on this Neowise data. Also, a major asteroid impact will affect life on Earth at some point, just as it has multiple times in the past. The data are critical to assessing this risk. If there is a mistake by a factor of two in the diameter, which there are for a bunch, that’s a mistake of a factor of eight in the energy.

An image taken by Nasa’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or Wise telescope, which has surveyed asteroids, of newborn stars in the constellation Camelopardalis.


An image taken by Nasa’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or Wise telescope, which has surveyed asteroids, of newborn stars in the constellation Camelopardalis. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images

You must have spent many hours and a lot of money working on this. You even hired lawyers to help lodge freedom of information requests. Has it been worth it?
I am guilty of being stubborn. Once this started, I was left with a stark choice: give up or keep going. If they had ever said: “You probably have a point, we’ll look into it in our next version”, I probably would have stopped. But because of the way they reacted, I felt I couldn’t let it go. I am not hoping for it, but if in those thousands of asteroids there is [one] heading towards us and we can better estimate its size, I will feel vindicated.

Nasa’s reported response has been to stand by the data and the analysis performed by the Neowise team. Can we trust Nasa after this?
They need to have an independent investigation of these results. When my preprint paper came out in 2016, they said: “You shouldn’t believe it because it’s not peer-reviewed.” Well, now it has been peer reviewed. How Nasa handles it at this stage will be very telling. People have suggested to me the reason Nasa doesn’t want to admit that anything is wrong with the data is that they’re afraid it would hurt the chances of Neocam, an approximately $ 500m (£380m) telescope to find asteroids that might hit Earth proposed by the same group who did the Neowise analysis.

This isn’t the first time you have found fault in scientists’ analyses. In 2013, you challenged estimates of the growth rate of dinosaurs, which led to some corrections by the papers’ authors. Do you enjoy being a thorn in their side?
Agatha Christie books and other mystery novels feature an amateur crime solver: a “Miss Marple”. That’s me, it seems. In the case of the dinosaurs, I made some material changes in the field. I feel the same thing will happen with the asteroids. When I wrote the paper [challenging the dinosaur analysis], a lot of other dinosaur people said: “I’m glad you did that, I suspected the numbers were wrong.” But either they weren’t confident enough with statistics, or they were afraid. Similarly, when my asteroid preprint first came out, I got emails from several people in that community saying the same. It’s hugely liberating [to be an outsider]. The fact that I have already given myself tenure at the University of Nathan, I don’t have to worry about looking for grants like others might.

In 2015, you built this robotic model of a dinosaur tail that showed a dinosaur could break the sound barrier when it cracked its tail. You also fund palaeontology digs and I believe you keep a lifesize T-rex skeleton in your living room. Are you working on anything dinosaur-related at the moment?
One thing is a big comparative study to try to understand why dinosaurs got so damn big. A lot of it has to do not with why dinosaurs got so big, but why mammals are small. Mammals have some problems when they’re very large – like pregnancy – that dinosaurs didn’t have. For dinosaurs, laying eggs made it a lot easier to be big.


Any patent holder who enforces their rights gets called a patent troll. Silicon Valley feels very threatened by anything that could challenge its own authority

In 2000, you left Microsoft and set up Intellectual Ventures, which primarily buys and licenses patents. The business is often vilified as one of the world’s biggest “patent trolls”. Why do you think people find it so loathsome?
I fundamentally think what we do is good. It is hard for me to get too worked up about figuring out why it is bad. Any patent holder who enforces their rights gets called a patent troll. Silicon Valley feels very threatened by anything that could challenge its authority. If you are one of the big companies, like Google or Apple, almost no one can challenge you in the market that you’re in. But if somebody has a patent, they can ask for a bunch of money. The more you can get a return from an invention, the better off the world will be. It will lead to more inventions being funded and more inventing.

How many patents do you have?
I’d guess altogether we have around 30,000. Around 8,000 of those my company invented. Personally I probably have about 800. It changes every Tuesday, which is the day the patent office issues patents. We still only have a drop in the bucket. There are around 4m active US patents.

Intellectual Ventures also has this “global good” arm that is collaborating with Bill Gates. What are some of the inventions coming out of that and how close are they to fruition?
We’ve invented a vaccine container that keeps vaccine cold even without refrigeration. That has played a crucial role in the Ebola outbreaks and has been rolled out across Africa for other diseases. It has made an enormous difference in people’s lives. One that’s coming is we’ve invented a very cheap, noninvasive test for cervical cancer. It does remarkably better than any other technique. We designed it for developing countries but there is interest in using it here in the US, too. We take a picture of the cervix. We have a machine-learning algorithm that learned how to diagnose cervical cancer by looking at pictures. Our latest thing is a plastic speculum, a rubber band, and an iPhone. It’s really cheap and it only takes a minute. We’re working on diagnostic trials.

You also have commercial spinouts from Intellectual Ventures. One of them is developing a new kind of nuclear reactor. What’s different about it and where are you towards building it?
For a very long time there was really not that much effort put in to designing radical new kinds of reactors. Instead, everyone made tiny little modifications to old reactors. We realised that, so we got into the game. There are a tremendous number of opportunities that one has to make reactors that are cheaper, safer, and which can do really cool things like burn nuclear waste as fuel. That’s really important because the world has thousands of tonnes of nuclear waste sitting around that is otherwise a big problem.Turning that into fuel that would be fantastic and we are looking at projects in China and other parts of the world. Nuclear reactors take a long time to build, but we’re hoping in the 2020s we’ll see our first.

President Trump is going after China’s intellectual property theft. Given your experience, can he succeed in curbing it?
The theft of intellectual property by Chinese companies is a very serious issue. It’s not just private companies in China or little companies. A large amount of it is state-owned enterprise. So, it really is the Chinese government doing it. Exactly how to solve that issue, I don’t know. You need the Chinese government to be very serious about it, but so far they haven’t been. In my experience in business, you mostly do better with negotiating in quiet diplomacy, not with brinksmanship. But I’ve never built luxury hotels and golf courses. Maybe it is different there.

Your cookbooks, most recently Modernist Bread, cost hundreds of dollars, weigh kilograms and are full of striking photos that you took. You’re in Brazil researching your next book, about pizza. What does Brazil have to do with pizza?
The US has had pizza since lots of immigrants from Italy brought it with them in the late 19th century. Well, so, too, for Brazil and Argentina, which is our next stop. One of the things about pizza is, when it goes to some new area, people tend to mutate it and develop their own unique style. One of the styles of Brazilian pizza is an ultra-thin crust: thinner than a cracker, and stiff, with a thin layer of toppings. Also, because they have lots of tropical ingredients, you get pizzas with bananas on. Sliced hard-boiled eggs are also pretty common.

You use innovative photography techniques and custom-made equipment to show food in a whole different way. Many people post pictures of their brunch on Instagram. Do you have any tips for better shots?
It’s really hard to get a good shot with the flash that’s on your cell phone, so you usually want to turn that off. Very bright, directional light also usually looks bad: you get harsh shadows. You want a broad light source near your food. Get near a window. Of course, some restaurants, for reasons I still don’t understand, make it so damn dark. I think it’s supposed to be romantic or something.

What’s next due a “Nathaning”?
It is really hard for me to predict what’s going to be next. Many of the things I am doing now I wouldn’t have predicted I would be doing a couple years ago. On the cooking front, at some point we have to address dessert, but we haven’t figured out how yet. We’re still working on pizza.

Animal antibiotics: Calm down about your chicken, says big pharma

A Facebook ad entitled “How to survive as a working mom” depicts a stressed woman with a baby on her lap and a phone under one ear. “Breathe,” the advert says. “Pour a glass of wine (if that’s your thing). Prepare your family the chicken. Whether the label says ‘no antibiotics’ or not, the meat and milk you buy is free of harmful residues from antibiotics.”

The Enough Movement – the “global community” behind this advert – promises to tell you the truth about food. But it’s a PR campaign funded by Elanco, a multinational animal drugs company that sells antibiotics for use on livestock. Elanco operates in more than 70 countries and in 2015 accounted for 13% of the veterinary pharmaceuticals market. A subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, last year it was valued at $ 14bn-$ 16bn (£10.5bn-£12bn).


They’re trying to brush us off like we’re hysterical women who need a pat on the head and a glass of wine to calm down.

Sarah Sorscher, Center for Science in the Public Interest

Elanco, along with other organisations with vested interests, is using slick advertising campaigns to downplay consumer concerns over giving antibiotics to animals, a joint investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found. Critics say agricultural and pharmaceutical organisations are using similar tactics to steer the debate about antibiotic use on farm animals as those employed by tobacco and oil companies during public health debates about smoking and climate change.

Mothers are clearly the target for many of the Enough Movement’s adverts. Some – such as one titled “Eat. Sleep. Mom. Repeat” – make no reference to antibiotics or agriculture at all. Another from its Twitter feed reads: “Making mom friends can be difficult. Making food decisions doesn’t have to be. Whether the label says “no antibiotics” or not, the meat or milk you buy is free of harmful residues from antibiotics.”

These adverts – just a handful of the many posted on social media by the Enough Movement – refer to Food Safety Inspection Service testing, which makes sure the meat on supermarket shelves has no more than trace amounts of antibiotic. But many scientists are more concerned about the rise of antimicrobial resistance – where bugs don’t respond to medicine – than about antibiotic residues. The heavy use of antibiotics on farms is believed to be a major contributor to this problem, seen as one of the most dangerous public health issues of our time. The Enough Movement potentially confuses consumers, who are increasingly looking for antibiotic-free meat, by shifting the debate from resistance to residues.

An advert for the Enough Movement


An advert for the Enough Movement. Photograph: Enough Movement

Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest said: “Ads like this are patronising. Industry should be looking for ways to address valid consumer concerns. Instead, they’re trying to brush us off like we’re a bunch of hysterical women who just need a pat on the head and a good glass of wine to calm down.”

Besides the Elanco adverts’ tendency for being “grossly sexist”, says Dr Thomas Van Boeckel – an epidemiologist specialising in antimicrobial resistance – they are also “a classic strategy to divert the debate about residues rather than focusing on the core issue, which is the selection for resistant bacteria in the live animals due to the constant exposure to those drugs on the farm”.

Scientists believe that using antibiotics on farm animals is one of the major causes of the growth of antimicrobial resistance. Any resistant bacteria that has thrived across a large herd of animals in close quarters can potentially spread from farms and infect humans through food, contact with farm workers or in soil and fertiliser. Drug resistance has been dubbed one of the greatest public health threats the world faces. It is estimated to kill 700,000 people worldwide, a figure that will rise to 10 million by 2050 if no action is taken.

Ferd Hoefner, a senior strategic advisor at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, believes the way industry has responded to calls to reduce the amount of antibiotics in agriculture is strikingly similar to techniques adopted in the smoking and climate change fields: “PR companies … are just constantly raising doubts. They’ve turned that kind of thing into an art form.”

Prof Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the US-based Center for Disease Dynamics Economics and Policy, agrees: “It’s not surprising. It’s pretty standard. In the case of tobacco the industry played down the effects of smoking – ‘a few cigarettes won’t hurt you’. They tried to appeal to women by making smoking Virginia Slims a sign of the feminist movement.

“The truth is that companies like Elanco are likely to face significant financial hardship given that many of the world’s consumers will no longer want to buy meat raised on antibiotics.”

Enough Movement advertising creted by Elanco


Epidemiologist Dr Thomas Van Boeckel says adverts like these are a classic strategy to divert the debate. Photograph: Enough Movement

In a 2016 report commissioned by the British government, former economist Lord Jim O’Neill found that out of 139 academic studies – excluding those funded by industry or government bodies – 72% supported evidence of a link between antibiotic consumption in animals and resistance in humans. Only 5% argued that there was no link.

Of the studies compiled by Lord O’Neill, the most recent academic paper to find no link was written by a student at a Hawaiian high school in 2005. Out of four industry-funded papers identified by the review, two didn’t support evidence that banning agricultural antibiotic use would have an effect on the level of resistance in humans.

Even so, one of those industry-funded papers said stricter regulation of newer antibiotics in agriculture could potentially extend their effectiveness in humans. The authors of the study – which was funded by Pfizer, one of the world’s biggest drug companies, and published in 2002 – suggested that recently discovered antibiotics should be used prudently on farms before resistance emerges. But they argue that controlling the use of antibiotics in agriculture after resistance has already emerged will have little impact on the number of superbugs in hospitals.

The Elanco-funded Enough Movement reads like a humanitarian report, offering “practical solutions” on ensuring there is enough food for everyone as the population grows. The ‘movement’, which includes a report, a website and social media adverts, promotes modern farming procedures that could ensure a steady supply of meat and dairy. The campaign’s Facebook page has more than 20,000 followers and Elanco claims its messaging gains 1 million impressions online per week.

In response to the Bureau’s findings, Elanco said: “The Enough Movement works to bring awareness to food security and answer consumer questions about how food is produced. Recent labelling initiatives have increased consumer questions about antibiotic use in animals. And we have a responsibility to answer those concerns, especially when it comes to the safety of the food we eat.”

Sanderson Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the US, launched a similar campaign to Elanco in 2016 as its CEO called meat labelled as “antibiotic-free” as “misleading”. In one TV advert, a man in a supermarket, dressed in a plaid shirt, khakis and a cap, says: “Some chicken companies try to get you to spend more money by using labels like ‘raised without antibiotics’. At Sanderson Farms, we don’t believe in gimmicks like that. No antibiotics to worry about here.” Last month, a report by the investors’ group Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return ranked Sanderson Farms among the worst companies for its policies on antibiotic use in animals.

Enough Movement advertising creted by Elanco


The Enough Movement said: ‘Recent labelling initiatives have increased consumer questions about antibiotic use in animals.’ Photograph: Enough Movement

Sanderson Farms did not respond to a request for comment, but a statement on its website says it is “committed to taking steps toward finding alternative ways to control disease to reduce antibiotic use, and to work with its drug suppliers to phase out the use of antibiotics that are important to human medicine when alternatives become available”.

Although the majority of the scientific community accepts antibiotic use on farms is a genuine threat to human health, the true scale of the problem remains unknown. And this gap in knowledge has proved fertile ground for the agricultural and pharmaceutical industry to suggest the threat may be at most minimal.

Not only are companies targeting consumers with adverts, the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries are also pumping money into scientific research on antibiotic resistance. Some of these studies either play down the potential risk to human health from antibiotic use in farm animals or support claims that more research is needed before policy decisions are made.

Elanco has indirectly funded studies that point to the need for more research on the link between antibiotic use on farms and resistant infections in humans. Along with other major pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer Animal Health and Boehringer Ingelheim, it is one of 13 members of the Animal Health Institute (AHI), which has funded this work. Eight out of the 13 AHI members listed on its website sell antibiotics for use in farm animals. AHI also spent almost $ 700,000 on lobbying between 2013 and 2017, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A number of companies have fervently opposed stricter regulations arguing that, without antibiotics, not only will animal welfare be compromised but food prices will go up. Until 2017 antibiotics were widely used as growth promoters on US farms, helping livestock grow fatter more quickly. When farm animals are sick it is sometimes necessary to give them antibiotics. But US farmers are still allowed to routinely give them to healthy animals to prevent disease, a practice many believe can often take place as a way of dealing with overcrowding and poor hygiene. This so-called “prophylactic use” of antibiotics is currently being scrutinised in the EU, with stricter regulations under consideration.

Enough Movement advertising creted by Elanco


Photograph: Enough Movement

Dr James Rogers, director of Food Safety Research and Testing at Consumer Reports and a former FSIS employee, said: “There is intense pushback because we are talking about an economic effect, that if they were not allowed to use antibiotics, especially for growth promotion, you’re going to get fewer pounds per chicken, which means less money.”

In November the US Department of Agriculture rejected further restrictions recommended by the World Health Organization. The guidelines proposed a ban on giving healthy animals antibiotics important for human medicine. The USDA acting chief scientist, Dr Chavonda Jacobs-Young said they were “not in alignment with US policy and not supported by sound science”. Hoefner, who is a regular attendee at the monthly meetings between industry representatives and USDA officials, described her comment as “outrageous” given the weight of knowledge behind the WHO guidelines.

Last year agribusiness organisations, including all livestock, crop and tobacco industries, spent more than $ 131m on lobbying in the US, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Critics say industry is perceived to have been able to tighten its grip on the USDA during the Trump administration, especially on the issue of antibiotic use. Hoefner said: “We were making some inroads in the last administration here in the US, but even then it was difficult. We weren’t making huge strides but we were making some strides. But now it’s totally impossible so we’ll just have to wait this out.”

But Prof Laxminarayan is more hopeful. Referring to Elanco’s Enough Movement, he says: “I see all of this as the last cries before it goes down,” he said. “It will still have a role in animal health, but the days of pushing antibiotics in livestock for growth promotion, their widespread use on farms to prevent disease, are soon to be over.”

You, Me and the Big C: ‘When you talk about cancer, you normalise it’

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.

Rachael Bland of You, Me and the Big C


Rachael Bland. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.

Deborah (BowelBabe) James


Deborah James. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.”


You want to talk to someone who understands what it’s actually like [to have cancer]

Deborah James

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 six-year-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.

Lauren (Girl Vs Cancer) Mahon


Lauren Mahon. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.


It is emotional, it’s the processing of trauma – but the reward is that sense of unity, that we’re in this together

Lauren Mahon

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 over-dramatic.’ Which is exactly what I wanted to hear.”

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


It’s provided me with so much strength

Rachael Bland

You, Me and the Big C: ‘When you talk about cancer, you normalise it’

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.

Rachael Bland of You, Me and the Big C


Rachael Bland. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.

Deborah (BowelBabe) James


Deborah James. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.”


You want to talk to someone who understands what it’s actually like [to have cancer]

Deborah James

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 six-year-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.

Lauren (Girl Vs Cancer) Mahon


Lauren Mahon. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.


It is emotional, it’s the processing of trauma – but the reward is that sense of unity, that we’re in this together

Lauren Mahon

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 over-dramatic.’ Which is exactly what I wanted to hear.”

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


It’s provided me with so much strength

Rachael Bland

You, Me and the Big C: ‘When you talk about cancer, you normalise it’

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.

Rachael Bland of You, Me and the Big C


Rachael Bland. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.

Deborah (BowelBabe) James


Deborah James. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.”


You want to talk to someone who understands what it’s actually like [to have cancer]

Deborah James

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 six-year-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.

Lauren (Girl Vs Cancer) Mahon


Lauren Mahon. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.


It is emotional, it’s the processing of trauma – but the reward is that sense of unity, that we’re in this together

Lauren Mahon

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 over-dramatic.’ Which is exactly what I wanted to hear.”

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


It’s provided me with so much strength

Rachael Bland

You, Me and the Big C: ‘When you talk about cancer, you normalise it’

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.

Rachael Bland of You, Me and the Big C


Rachael Bland. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.

Deborah (BowelBabe) James


Deborah James. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.”


You want to talk to someone who understands what it’s actually like [to have cancer]

Deborah James

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 six-year-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.

Lauren (Girl Vs Cancer) Mahon


Lauren Mahon. Photograph: Mark Waugh

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.


It is emotional, it’s the processing of trauma – but the reward is that sense of unity, that we’re in this together

Lauren Mahon

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 over-dramatic.’ Which is exactly what I wanted to hear.”

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


It’s provided me with so much strength

Rachael Bland

Danny Rose’s openness about his mental ill health is commendable | Amy Izycky

In an unprecedented move this week, Gareth Southgate and his communications team decided that they wanted to let all 23 members of the England World Cup team talk to the media ahead of the tournament. Something that was even more unprecedented was the 12-minute interview given by Danny Rose, the Tottenham Hotspur defender, who spoke about his recent struggles with depression. One of the triggers was a knee injury sustained in January 2017 that resulted in him being sidelined for eight months. “It led to me seeing a psychologist and being diagnosed with depression, which nobody knows about. I had to get away from Tottenham … I was on medication for a few months.”

Rose is not the first professional sports person to speak out about mental ill health. In recent years, the many household names who have shared their experiences have included Jonny Wilkinson, Kelly Holmes, Victoria Pendleton and Marcus Trescothick. What therefore seems so surprising is that we should continue to be shocked. We place our sporting heroes on a very high pedestal. They inspire us, bring hope and bring the nation together. It is perhaps hard for many to acknowledge that they are also everyday people like you and me. If mental health problems exist in the general population, they will of course exist in the sporting population, too.

Having competed in sport myself, and worked as a psychologist with many a struggling athlete, I think that sports people are more vulnerable to developing mental ill health, for a number of reasons. The very personality traits that make them so damn good at what they do also make them more vulnerable. In the course of interviewing professional sportspeople for my forthcoming book, it became clear to me that this population presents with high measures of obsessionality, masochism and aggression. Each of these personality traits is of course required to excel. It’s no good hitting that wall and thinking, “I think I’ll call it a day.” As a sportsperson you have to push through the pain barrier and make numerous sacrifices to get to where you want to be. But this can be a double-edged sword: become over-familiar with pain and discomfort and potentially this could tip over into something more unhealthy. Holmes, Pendleton and more recently Hannah Tyrrell have spoken out about their experiences with self-harm.

There are multiple points at which an individual becomes more vulnerable. Injury and retirement, needless to say, are challenging times for even the most robust athlete. It is then that adjustment to loss must occur; loss of one’s identity, and loss of the external feedback that tells you you’re worth something. With injury, the sportsperson must confront painful loss in ability and deterioration in their physical form. This is not easy.

What is encouraging about Rose’s openness is that he has dared to put his head above the parapet as a current England player in the thick of his career. Many athletes dare not share mental health concerns with their coaches or their team-mates for fear that they will lose their spot in the squad. Rose revealed that the Spurs club doctor referred him to a doctor and a psychologist and it was this that “helped [him] cope massively”.

I commend the club doctor and wonder what he was communicating to his team that enabled Rose to approach him with an illness that was not physical in origin. It is also commendable that Rose’s symptoms were treated clinically, when, for many sportspeople, access to a sports psychologist is seen as far more acceptable.

It would be easy for me to encourage any sportsperson struggling with mental health to seek referral to a clinician. But this would not be helpful in isolation; nothing will change until our sporting culture can come to accept that sportspeople are just as vulnerable, if not more so, to mental ill health as the rest of us. Sports coaches, managers and doctors all have a role here in communicating to athletes that talking about it might help.

Let’s hope that Southgate’s change of tack this week in allowing his players to talk openly to the media will affect how sport relates to mental health. Hopefully it will communicate the powerful message that having a diagnosis does not hasten the end of one’s sporting career. If this can happen, it might pave the way to more specialised mental health services for sportspeople, not only at the point of retirement or injury but while they continue to perform. It’s about time.

Amy Izycky is a clinical psychologist and psychodynamic psychotherapist

Danny Rose’s openness about his mental ill health is commendable | Amy Izycky

In an unprecedented move this week, Gareth Southgate and his communications team decided that they wanted to let all 23 members of the England World Cup team talk to the media ahead of the tournament. Something that was even more unprecedented was the 12-minute interview given by Danny Rose, the Tottenham Hotspur defender, who spoke about his recent struggles with depression. One of the triggers was a knee injury sustained in January 2017 that resulted in him being sidelined for eight months. “It led to me seeing a psychologist and being diagnosed with depression, which nobody knows about. I had to get away from Tottenham … I was on medication for a few months.”

Rose is not the first professional sports person to speak out about mental ill health. In recent years, the many household names who have shared their experiences have included Jonny Wilkinson, Kelly Holmes, Victoria Pendleton and Marcus Trescothick. What therefore seems so surprising is that we should continue to be shocked. We place our sporting heroes on a very high pedestal. They inspire us, bring hope and bring the nation together. It is perhaps hard for many to acknowledge that they are also everyday people like you and me. If mental health problems exist in the general population, they will of course exist in the sporting population, too.

Having competed in sport myself, and worked as a psychologist with many a struggling athlete, I think that sports people are more vulnerable to developing mental ill health, for a number of reasons. The very personality traits that make them so damn good at what they do also make them more vulnerable. In the course of interviewing professional sportspeople for my forthcoming book, it became clear to me that this population presents with high measures of obsessionality, masochism and aggression. Each of these personality traits is of course required to excel. It’s no good hitting that wall and thinking, “I think I’ll call it a day.” As a sportsperson you have to push through the pain barrier and make numerous sacrifices to get to where you want to be. But this can be a double-edged sword: become over-familiar with pain and discomfort and potentially this could tip over into something more unhealthy. Holmes, Pendleton and more recently Hannah Tyrrell have spoken out about their experiences with self-harm.

There are multiple points at which an individual becomes more vulnerable. Injury and retirement, needless to say, are challenging times for even the most robust athlete. It is then that adjustment to loss must occur; loss of one’s identity, and loss of the external feedback that tells you you’re worth something. With injury, the sportsperson must confront painful loss in ability and deterioration in their physical form. This is not easy.

What is encouraging about Rose’s openness is that he has dared to put his head above the parapet as a current England player in the thick of his career. Many athletes dare not share mental health concerns with their coaches or their team-mates for fear that they will lose their spot in the squad. Rose revealed that the Spurs club doctor referred him to a doctor and a psychologist and it was this that “helped [him] cope massively”.

I commend the club doctor and wonder what he was communicating to his team that enabled Rose to approach him with an illness that was not physical in origin. It is also commendable that Rose’s symptoms were treated clinically, when, for many sportspeople, access to a sports psychologist is seen as far more acceptable.

It would be easy for me to encourage any sportsperson struggling with mental health to seek referral to a clinician. But this would not be helpful in isolation; nothing will change until our sporting culture can come to accept that sportspeople are just as vulnerable, if not more so, to mental ill health as the rest of us. Sports coaches, managers and doctors all have a role here in communicating to athletes that talking about it might help.

Let’s hope that Southgate’s change of tack this week in allowing his players to talk openly to the media will affect how sport relates to mental health. Hopefully it will communicate the powerful message that having a diagnosis does not hasten the end of one’s sporting career. If this can happen, it might pave the way to more specialised mental health services for sportspeople, not only at the point of retirement or injury but while they continue to perform. It’s about time.

Amy Izycky is a clinical psychologist and psychodynamic psychotherapist

‘Holy grail of cancer research’: doctors positive about early detection blood test

A blood test for 10 different types of cancers could one day help doctors screen for the disease before patients show symptoms, researchers at the world’s largest gathering of oncologists have said.

The test, called a liquid biopsy, screens for cancer by detecting tiny bits of DNA released by cancer cells into blood. The test had particularly good results for ovarian and pancreatic cancers, though the number of cancers detected was small.

Researchers hope the test will become part of a “universal screening” tool that doctors can use to detect cancer in patients.

“This is potentially the holy grail of cancer research, to find cancers that are currently hard to cure at an earlier stage when they are easier to cure,” said Dr Eric Klein, lead author of the research from Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Institute. “We hope this test could save many lives.”

The study, by a research team that also included scientists from Stanford University, was presented at the annual conference of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists in Chicago.

Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, said “new techniques” such as cancer blood tests could “unlock enormous survival gains, as well as dramatic productivity benefits in the practice of medicine”.

“Now, as the NHS marks its 70th anniversary, we stand on the cusp of a new era of personalised medicine that will dramatically transform care for cancer and for inherited and rare diseases,” said Stevens.

The research scrutinised the cases of more than 1,600 people, 749 of whom were cancer-free at the time of the study, with no diagnosis, and 878 of whom had been newly diagnosed with a disease.

The test was most accurate for diagnosing pancreatic, ovarian, liver and gallbladder cancers, correctly finding the diseases in at least four out of five patients.

The blood test found lymphoma and myeloma with slightly less accuracy, at 77% and 73%, and bowel cancer in two out of three patients. Lung cancer was detected in 59% of patients. Head and neck cancer was detected in 56% of patients.

Researchers said their results showed promise in the approach of blood screenings for cancer, but noted further “clinical development” was needed.

The number of patients in whom cancers were detected was small. For example, although the test detected ovarian cancer with 90% accuracy, only 10 ovarian cancers in total were detected.

Nevertheless, researchers aim to develop a tool that could be used by for all people regardless of their family history. “Potentially this test could be used for everybody,” said Klein.

Prof Nicholas Turner from the Institute of Cancer Research in London described the findings as really exciting and as a possible universal screening tool. “Far too many cancers are picked up too late, when it is no longer possible to operate and the chances of survival are slim,” he said. “The goal is to develop a blood test, such as this one, that can accurately identify cancers in their earliest stages.”

Klein added: “It is several steps away and more research is needed, but it could be given to healthy adults of a certain age, such as those over 40, to see if they have early signs of cancer.”