This week marked the tragic death of former BBC newsreader, Rachael Bland after her battle with cancer. The 40-year-old wrote extensively about her fears of leaving her baby son motherless. Amanda Cassidy reflects on her inspirational life, her fight to take the stigma out of cancer, and how even at her weakest, Rachael’s voice was at its strongest.
“The time has come,” Rachael wrote on social media just two days before she passed away on Wednesday. The 40-year-old mother-of-one had documented her battle with cancer from the moment she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Her story touched so many who were going through a similar diagnosis as well as their family and friends.
Every photo the former newsreader posted on her social media was of her smiling – along with the hashtag notdeadyet and terminallyfabulous as she trudged from clinical trial to chemo session. The last photo she uploaded was of her and her husband, Steve with champagne glasses – grinning at the camera, despite the fact that she was so close to death. Her final post read “In the words of the legendary Frank S – I’m afraid the time has come, my friends. And suddenly I’m told I’ve got only days. It is very surreal. Thank you so much for all the support I’ve received. Debs and Lozz will continue with the You Me and The Big C podcast. Au revoir my friends.
Rachael was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and started recording the You Me and The Big C podcast. She spoke very openly about her treatment, the highs and lows of tackling cancer and about her fears about leaving her son without a mother. Her blog, Big C, Little Me was a source of comfort and information for many. Rachael’s honest and considered description of what she was going through struck a chord with many.
The weekly podcast was presented with Deborah James and Lauren Mahon – both who had cancer treatment
“We wanted to create a space where you feel like you’re sitting down with girls like you . . . talking about it like it’s EastEnders. When you talk about something, you normalise it.”
But while she continued presenting with enthusiasm and vigour, Rachael was quietly preparing for her death. She sent her sister-in-law a list of ideas for Freddie’s (her two-year-old son) future and wrapped birthday presents for him to open until he is 21 years old. She also compiled some of her favourite things for him to cherish, like her perfume and her endless notepads. Writing for The Telegraph in August, she said: “I’m not scared of dying. I only fear for those I leave behind. For my darling Freddie, who’ll be three next month, for Steve and our families.
Even now, knowing the ‘no options left’ conversation is coming, I can’t crumble and fall to pieces. I have to suppress a lot of the darkest thoughts about Freddie growing up without his mummy around. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the precious times we have left together.”
She had set about writing a memoir for her son which she explained would serve as his connection to her throughout his life. “I’m writing it for him as an adult, to come back to through his life,” she told The Times in July. “He’s not really at an age where he’s going to remember very much about me. I just wanted to get everything down in my words so he gets a sense of who I am, my sense of humour.”
Rachel was born in Wales in 1978. Her father was a local Scout leader who died from Cancer just four years ago. Her mother worked in the local primary school. She grew up with her brother, Matthew near Cardiff. When she was just 16, Rachael was in a car crash and suffered a fractured skull and post-traumatic stress disorder. She went on to suffer from anxiety over the course of her life. Writing about how her anxiety had resurfaced along with her cancer diagnosis, the broadcaster wrote. “Me and anxiety go WAAY back. We’re old pals. Well, more frenemies.”
She studied journalism in the University of Wales and began her career presenting news bulletins for BBC Wiltshire. In 2011, Rachael began presenting regularly on North West Tonight, the regional TV news programme and it was on this move that she met her future husband, fellow BBC journalist Steve Bland. She wrote, years later. “For so long I had heard the adage, ‘when you know, you know’ and I never knew. Until that moment”. They got married two years later and then their son, Freddie was born in 2015. Rachael was very active – outside the studio, she skied and enjoyed showjumping. She ran the London Marathon in 2010 and 2011. It was in November 2016 when Rachel first blogged about her diagnosis. “You know it’s not good when they take you to your own [private] waiting room,” read her first post, adding: “The young doctor tasked with delivering the news had her very best ‘sorry you have cancer’ face on. She kept pausing, waiting for me to cry at the opportune moments. I just sat there thinking, ‘I wish they’d wrap this up so I can get home, put the baby to bed and watch I’m a Celebrity’ . . . A prime example of someone in the ‘denial phase’. ”
A beautiful mind
Rachael’s open depiction of what it was like to be terminally ill was an inspiration to thousands. The love and good wishes that have poured in following her diagnosis and subsequent death are testament to her courage during the toughest time of her life. She offered so much support to others and had so much support around her that if love could keep her alive, she would have lived forever.
Her co-presenter on the podcast, Debs, put it best as she wrote in an open letter to her friend. “When my own cancer came back, you were the first person I called…
We talked about how life can be so damn unfair, how you wouldn’t get to see Freddie grow up, or even make his first day at school. But, you didn’t let either of us dwell on the fear.
Instead, you instantly turned our sadness into a debate over if we should re-name the podcast Til Death Do Us Part. You sent me a barrage of death jokes, gifs of dancing grim reapers and asked if we should try for a 2 for 1 deal on funerals. You were the only reason I was able to laugh through that darkness.”
This week, paying tribute to Rachael, Jonathan Wall, Controller of BBC Radio 5 live said: “Rachael was part of the fabric of 5 live and today is a very sad day for all of us and so many of our listeners. She was a very talented broadcaster and a beautiful loyal colleague to so many. More than that, she turned the final year of her life into the finest year of her life delivering the most important broadcasting I have ever heard about living with cancer, and ultimately facing death because of cancer.
Presenter and friend, Zoe Ball wrote: “All the love to Rachael Bland and her family. A brilliantly beautiful inspirational lady.” Stuart Matheson added: “A life well lived but stolen away so soon. Love to your family. Freddie should know he has a Mum who made a real difference. Much love, godspeed.”
“Strongest at her weakest”
Now, just less than two years later, Rachael is being laid to rest. Her husband Steve told the BBC that he takes huge comfort and pride from the amazing work she has done to reduce the stigma around cancer. “Rachael’s death has left a huge hole in our perfect little family that we’ll never be able to fill. She was an incredibly talented broadcaster as well as a wonderful and much-loved daughter, sister, aunt, niece, wife and most importantly to her, a mother to her precious little Freddie. She showed that it is possible to live life to the fullest even when facing huge challenges on a daily basis.
In the end, even though her body was at its weakest, her voice was at its strongest. Rachael was, and always will be, an incredible inspiration to everyone she met. To us, she was perfect in every way.”