Lauren Mahon has run the gamut of almost every emotion you can think of in the past week. ‘You can ask me how I am feeling at any point during the day, and it will be different,’ the 37-year-old reflects.
‘There’s anguish and grief, numbness and shock, but also sheer elation, pride and gratitude at what Deb has achieved.’
Deb being Deborah James, the 40-year-old former deputy headteacher who was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer just over five years ago. She courageously made it her mission to draw attention to the disease, which went on to become stage four and incurable.
Using the moniker ‘Bowelbabe’, she wrote a frank and fearless blog before becoming one of a trio of presenters bringing us the equally frank, often very funny and blisteringly honest BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C.
Lauren, a former social media manager who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 aged 31, and the late Rachael Bland were the other two points of this powerhouse broadcasting triangle — their work has won countless awards — until Rachael’s tragic death from breast cancer in September 2018 at the age of 40, just six months after the podcast was launched.
Rachael’s widower Steve subsequently took her place, and the podcast has continued to go from strength to strength, even as Deborah navigated one cancer-related health crisis after another. ‘She has always been the comeback kid,’ as Lauren puts it.
BBC Radio 5 live presenter Rachael Bland (L), bloggers Lauren (Girl Vs Cancer) Mahon (M) and Deborah (BowelBabe) James (R), podcast You, Me and the Big C
Sadly not this time. In a heart-breaking post on social media earlier this week, Deborah revealed that she had run out of treatment options and was now receiving end-of-life hospice care at her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey. ‘Nobody knows how long I’ve got left,’ she wrote. Showing the lack of self-pity that has characterised her journey, she urged readers to do something positive to ‘see her out’ by donating to her cancer research fund.
She had hoped to raise £250,000 but, at the time of writing, the sum had surpassed £5 million, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge among those to donate and pay tribute to her bravery.
On Thursday, it was announced that Deborah would be made a dame in recognition of her tireless work.
Little wonder that Lauren’s eyes fill up —as they do frequently during our interview — when she contemplates her friend’s legacy. ‘I’m so proud of her,’ she says. ‘Her work has saved so many lives already, but she will save and prolong so many more because of this money.’
Of the damehood, Lauren says: ‘Of course Deb is a dame — it’s like she was born to be. It’s a great testament to all she has achieved and what she means to everyone. I couldn’t be prouder of her.’
Lauren Mahon has run the gamut of almost every emotion you can think of in the past week (pictured with Deborah)
Nonetheless, it is a bittersweet achievement, not just for Deborah’s family — her parents, sister, brother, husband Sebastien Bowen and children Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12 — but for all those who knew her well.
Lauren is among them, for while she first met Deborah only four years ago, their shared experience forged a unique and unbreakable bond.
‘We’ve been through something so powerful together — what we have created with the podcast has changed the way cancer is talked about and experienced in the UK,’ Lauren says. ‘The thing I’m really struggling with is that Rachael, Deb and I started this together as a threesome and the prospect of not having either of them around is difficult. I can’t get my head around it.’
That’s all too evident, with Lauren veering from disbelief to tangible grief as she reflects on the events of the past few days.
‘It’s such a weird space to be in,’ she says. ‘I feel like I am mourning someone who is not yet gone. I am not in denial, but at the same time there is this disbelief that this really is it.’
Monday marks five years since Lauren was given the all-clear — an important milestone, although she takes nothing for granted.
Deb being Deborah James, the 40-year-old former deputy headteacher who was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer just over five years ago. She courageously made it her mission to draw attention to the disease, which went on to become stage four and incurable
Charismatic and down-to-earth, Lauren had a carefree girl-about-town life in her native London when she found a lump in her breast in May 2016. She let it be, hoping it would go away, until a friend urged her to get it checked.
A few weeks later, she was sitting in a breast clinic getting her diagnosis: she had stage three cancer and an aggressive 2.8cm-long tumour.
‘I knew it was a process I had to get through,’ she says. Months of gruelling chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a lumpectomy followed. By the time she was given the all-clear, she had set up GirlvsCancer, a vivid, honest and relatable blog platform where women can share their stories.
It also sells merchandise which has raised tens of thousands of pounds for cancer charities.
In 2018, the site brought her to the attention of BBC journalist Rachael, who had been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in November 2016 and had come up with the idea of a podcast to raise awareness. A fan of Lauren and Deborah’s fearless dispatches from the cancer frontline, she asked them to come on board.
On Thursday, it was announced that Deborah would be made a dame in recognition of her tireless work. Pictured: Deborah (left) with her family on Mother’s Day this year
The accomplished broadcaster, the plain-speaking deputy head and feisty girl-next-door Lauren were in some ways an unlikely trio, yet immediately hit it off. ‘In terms of the circles we operated in, we never would have met if it wasn’t for cancer,’ Lauren reflects.
‘In terms of our taste and things we liked, we couldn’t be more different, but we couldn’t love each other more — and being different is what made it work, as we were all coming from different points of view and experiences of life.’
Amazingly, given the instant success of the podcast, the trio had never got together before they took to the microphone at a BBC studio in Salford in February 2018.
Deborah and Lauren met for the first time at Euston station to catch the train to Manchester ahead of that first recording session, and Lauren smiles as she recalls the beautifully turned-out brunette heading towards her in a big floppy hat and velvet blazer.
‘It became a joke that whenever we boarded the train to Manchester I looked like I was getting the bus to Glastonbury and she looked like she was stepping onto a yacht,’ Lauren laughs. ‘She always looks glamorous in every situation.’ There was instant chemistry. ‘We both sat down and started chatting and we just didn’t stop talking,’ she says.
The same spark was present when they met Rachael in the studio and, once translated onto the airwaves, it made for compelling listening.
‘I think that’s why the podcast flows so naturally because it is a chat between people who have lived and experienced cancer. There is no right or wrong, it is just how we were feeling.’
It is certainly ground-breaking —in a world where cancer is often spoken about in whispers, the trio brought humour and candour to the subject, covering everything from sex to body image through the prism of their own experiences. In the process, they got people to take responsibility for their own health.
Now it is Deborah’s husband, Seb (right), who faces the painful prospect of a future without his wife
‘There’s a stigma behind cancer diagnosis; this feeling around it that you’re going to die,’ says Lauren. ‘And, unfortunately, that’s a fate Rachael has suffered, and Deb is facing, but what that does is it stops people from going to get checked.
‘They’re terrified they’re going to die, so they like to bury their head in the sand. All we wanted to do was get people to check themselves because, if diagnosed, early survival rates are great, and to let the general populous know that this is what cancer looks like.’
Nonetheless, both Deborah and Lauren had to face the most dreaded of outcomes when Rachael died six months after that first episode was released. Her health deteriorated with alarming speed in the final weeks, and she left behind her husband and her then two-year-old son, Freddie. ‘We only had Rachael for a very short time,’ says Lauren. ‘Deb and I talk often about the fact that we’ve done more series of the podcast with Steve than we have with Rachael, which is crazy. I do still feel robbed, even after all these years.’
The aftermath was bewildering, with their grief unfolding against a blaze of recognition for their broadcasting work. ‘We were so sad we lost our friend, but then the podcast started winning all these awards and that felt like such a celebratory thing for Rachael, as she had been so clear that she wanted us to get the message out there.’
Into this baffling mix came guilt, too. ‘I remember saying to Deb, “Why her, not me? I don’t have any children. I don’t have a husband,” ’ recalls Lauren.
Deborah and Lauren met for the first time at Euston station to catch the train to Manchester ahead of that first recording session
‘She told me off, obviously. But it was hard not to feel that it was just desperately unfair.’
A year later, Steve, 41, met NHS nurse Amy, and the two are set to marry this year. Lauren fervently believes Rachael would have given the union her blessing.
‘There were a couple of women sniffing round Steve after we lost Rachael, and Deborah and I would say, “Don’t you dare go near her,” ’ says Lauren.
‘We were very protective. But Amy is just an absolute angel. We love Amy and she makes Steve so happy, and Freddie loves her.
‘And Rachael wanted Steve to be happy again, and she would more than approve.’
Now it is Deborah’s husband, Seb, who faces the painful prospect of a future without his wife. With typical candour, Deborah has already revealed that she has given him permission to marry again, as she confronts a fate that she has dreaded since her terminal diagnosis.
Lauren believes these conversations about the end will be particularly hard for Deborah, the ‘wild, funny’ friend with whom she has shared nights out and endless WhatsApp banter, but who never really liked to talk about the reality of death.
‘We’ve had multiple conversations with Deb when she was panicking, saying, “Oh my God, I think it is it this time,” but she’s never gone into the emotional depth of it — that is just not her way,’ says Lauren. ‘She never really wanted to talk about death itself.’
Instead, Deborah chose what she herself called ‘ruthless hope’, even in the face of endless challenges which escalated rapidly in the last year
Instead, Deborah chose what she herself called ‘ruthless hope’, even in the face of endless challenges which escalated rapidly in the last year.
She spent the majority of the past few months in hospital after a serious bleed and infections, and in January had to be resuscitated after her organs failed. ‘She almost died, and then she came back,’ says Lauren. ‘We have always seen her as the girl with nine lives.’
Yet, with her body no longer responding to treatment, she has had to accept that she is in the final days of her five-year journey.
Lauren and Steve had had an inkling that all was not well for some time.
‘She’d gone pretty quiet,’ Lauren recalls. ‘We know Deb as “all singing, all dancing”, so we know the signs.’ Finally, they received a text from Deborah last Friday.
‘She’d sent a group message to all of us who worked on the podcast, just letting us know that things weren’t working and what her plan was for the fund,’ says Lauren, her eyes filling up once more.
She spent the majority of the past few months in hospital after a serious bleed and infections, and in January had to be resuscitated after her organs failed
‘She couldn’t believe she was having to write the message, and she thanked us for being part of her life. As you can imagine, I didn’t sleep that night.’
How to respond to such a note? For Lauren there was only one way. ‘I refuse to say goodbye,’ she says. ‘I just want to tell her I love her until she can’t receive the messages any more.’
The feeling is clearly mutual: in her final podcast this week, Deborah — not one for outbursts of emotion — singled out her co-host, telling her: ‘I do love you Lauren, I just don’t tell you.’
‘That was our running joke,’ says Lauren. ‘I’m so touchy-feely and Deb cringes at that.’
Typically, too, she tells Lauren to move on and embrace being cancer-free. ‘She is forever telling me that I should be finding other ways to use my creativity, that cancer shouldn’t be all that I do,’ she says.
That has proved easier said than done: Lauren had a breakdown last year after experiencing so much trauma and loss. ‘I was also just constantly terrified that every ache, every pain was the cancer coming back,’ she says.
‘It’s a really normal response to a trauma such as getting told you’ve got cancer at 31, but with good medicine and therapy I can actually say I don’t wake up thinking about it every day any more.’ Happily single, she hopes to meet someone one day, and is pleased that she took her mother’s advice to freeze her eggs before undergoing cancer treatment, which would have made her infertile.
‘At the time, when you are told your breasts can kill you, you just want to focus on that. But Mum was the one who said that the future Lauren might want babies, and I am very glad she did.’
Yet, with her body no longer responding to treatment, she has had to accept that she is in the final days of her five-year journey
Deborah’s message, meanwhile, is all about the present. ‘Deb taught me to live, and live well, and not to beat yourself up too much,’ says Lauren.
‘If you want to eat the cake, eat the cake. If you want to have a glass of rosé, have a glass of rosé. Book the flights, do the things you want, don’t wait for life to happen to you.
‘Deb is testament to all of this. I look at what she’s done over the last five years and I’m in absolute awe of her.’ Who among us does not feel the same?
Courageous to the end, Deborah has said she hopes to end her days listening to the normal hubbub of family life.
‘Just knowing her and her family, it’s going to be difficult, but they will make sure it’s not too sad… there will be laughter, and there will be champagne, and there will be love,’ says Lauren.
‘I’m so glad that when she does finally close her eyes she will know that she’s made her mark.’
n To donate to the Bowelbabe Fund, visit justgiving.com/campaign/ BowelbabeFund