I woke up early this morning (unusual) and sketched out the idea for this blog post, noting that Rachael Bland’s last tweet had struck a chord (and not just with me). 

By the time I’ve come to edit and post, Rachael has sadly died: 

I felt like I’d got to know Rachael through the fabulous #YouMeBigC podcast on BBC Radio 5, which is currently in it’s second series… it was already doing well, but yesterday got to the number one spot

I had also had a handful of short DM chats, and listened to her chat with another friend, Kate Bottley – covering death, faith and all sorts. Knowing that quite a few people have found it hard to see stories about Rachael in their timeline (as it is something they don’t want to think about – too close to home), I loved this quote, referring to the fact that the podcast had changed the conversation round cancer

Above all, Bland reminded me how social media can still be a huge force for good. She had found personal comfort from people sharing their cancer stories, so she continued to share hers. Her treatments, her days out with her husband and young son – and her race to write a memoir for him – were all documented with purpose and beauty. Guardian

If we get the funding from Macmillan, I hope that we can continue expanding that conversation, and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of social media as a space for people affected by cancer. 

Just to give a sense of how much Rachael affected people’s lives see: 

And here her podcast pal Deborah James talk about how it’s possible for one person to make a difference (see also her article): 

With an awareness that treatment options were running out (both triple negative and metastatic cancer are things that need much more research), the first podcast of the second series was focused on the topic of ‘death‘, and the focus was that we need to accept that death is a natural part of life (it’s the only sure thing for all of us), and stop using euphemisms, etc…. and you’ll see her colleagues avoiding ‘passing on’ and saying ‘she’s died’. 

One of the things that has kept me going through treatment, aside from the huge amounts of support – digital, practical, prayerful, was having listening to a Greenbelt talk by my friend Andrew Graystone, about his own experience of prostate cancer, and one of his opening lines was ‘I’m going to die as many times as the rest of you, just once’. We’ve had conversations before about the fact that everything is talked about in 5 or 10 year survival terms, which makes you assume that that’s the best that you’re going to get – so it’s been lovely to hear from people who are 30+ years on, and from another friend that they rarely see people in the palliative care home, because it’s ‘rare’ for people to die from breast cancer these days… though that rarity includes people like Rachael – and is 11,500 women per year. The 5/10 year survival rates are basically tied to research targets – no one wants to fund hugely long-term studies! 

When I attended ‘A Space for Sharing‘, we talked about the fact that those of us with cancer are much more aware of death – it has come so much closer. There are some who really struggle with the social media spaces and forums, because you see the best and the worst of everything – including when people die. As the Chief Macmillan Nurse said, however, once you are in ‘the cancer world’, you are in a circle of people where the likelihood of death is higher, and this has always been the case – whether in physical support groups, or now online support groups. 

Within Facebook groups, there are spaces made to remember those who have died, a couple that have affected me particularly include:

Mhairi Fleming, a friend of my cousin’s, who gave great support online, and introduced me to YBCN, posted this video about her expectations about death (from a faith perspective). She was diagnosed with secondaries about a month after I was diagnosed with primary breast cancer, and her funeral was held on the day I had my first chemotherapy (benefit was being able to see the love poured out for her via Facebook, and also people sharing things that had struck them at the funeral). 

Tracey Keers (nee Brown), who I met at the BCC Younger Women Together event (but had also talked to via Instagram beforehand), and discovered she had secondaries during her pregnancy, and died shortly after giving birth (very early), and was able to get married just before she died

To note that there are a couple of academic research areas related to death, that I’ve had some (light) involvement in: Centre for Death and Life Studies at Durham University, and the MA in Death, Religion and Culture at University of Winchester (with associated Facebook group). 

With death in mind, it certainly makes you think about how you live, and not making life about ‘waiting for retirement’. I waver between ‘I really want to be a Professor, and I want to be one sooner rather than later’, and ‘there are more important things in life than work, so don’t lose the rest of life’ – this is not something particularly new to me obviously… but there’s a new intensity to it. There’s a certain amount of peace about the hope I have for when I die, but it’s very human to hope that that won’t be for some time! 

10 Responses

  1. A very good article. I certainly think cancer highlight our awareness of death in a very real and personal way…It took me right back to St Benedict’s (and others in the monastic tradition) instruction to “keep death always before your eyes”…I reflected a lot on that after diagnosis and during treatment. Monasteries (Carmelites mostly I think) used to have a shelf in the corner of their refectories (Dining room) with a skull on it as a reminder that we

  2. Sorry, I hit the wrong button and sent the previous comment before I was finished! ….So I’m carrying on from “as a reminder that we are all mortal. I always thought that a bit creepy, but I can sort of see the sense in it now…Still wouldn’t recommend it. I’m certainly aware that life is more fragile and precious than I was before…and that health is a really precious gift…I’m also aware that (regardless of cancer) I have less life led than I’ve had. From a faith perspective I’d say that (hard as it is) it’s been good for me to become more aware of that, even as I have to admit I don’t like it. I think our whole society has a problem with death….We’ve bought into some myth that we’ll live forever and always be young, fit, beautiful…It doesn’t serve us well at all…It was less than helpful when I was diagnosed.

    On the digital front I was so anxious during treatment that I had to stop looking at any of the forums or listing to any programmes about it. I looked at Macmillan and BCC for information about what to expect from treatment but couldn’t cope with more than that…. It’s only now 21/2 years since I was diagnosed that I’m able to look at some blogs…In this stage of discovering a new normal it seems to be a bit more helpful.

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