Remembering my friend and former colleague, the towering Rachael Bland
“I’m going to die. Let’s call it what it is.”
Shocking enough in print. More shocking when delivered from the mouth of someone with a husband and a young son and a dog and a life. Someone aged only forty.
I knew Rachael Bland, the BBC presenter who passed away on Wednesday morning, pretty well. We’d worked together at Radio 5 Live for many years. Her locker was close to where I sat, and we’d often wave at each other from across the room or pull faces as we talked about the strains of parenting. It was banal chat, but the sort of everyday stuff that gets you through. Most days she’d sit by the live studio writing her news scripts, heading in every half hour or so to read them. It seems stupid and trite to say that they were always coolly and professionally delivered, but they were.
When you’re sat editing 5 Live Sport – as I used to - especially at a weekend, the last thing you want on most news day is actual news because it breaks up the pace of everything. If you succumb – as you must - then you want it quick, clear and crisp so you can get back to the action. When Rachael was reading that’s exactly what you’d get. It was a simple blessing.
There were times though, in the mayhem of a Sports Report, when you wanted her to stumble over a word or two. The aural version of a typo. Anything to give you an extra few moments to cut a tape, get a reporter into position in a tunnel, edit a script, give instructions to a presenter sat in the cold at a now empty Anfield or Aintree. But it never happened. Always the same. Always perfect. Not that I mean to trivialise it because she was far more than an autocue reader – she was an excellent presenter of both radio and television. It’s just that when we worked together, that’s what she did. And she was the best.
When Rachael announced that she had breast cancer two years ago, it came as a huge shock. How was it possible that someone so young could be so ill? She’d recently been married to the magnificent Steve and they had a small son, Freddie. This wasn’t right. It wasn’t. Yet in all the time between the very first moment she announced she was sick, to the last day I ever saw her, she was never anything less than upbeat, at least externally. She exuded a strange confidence that said she was going to beat it no matter what. She took to writing a blog as catharsis, but each new post was shocking to read because of its ferocious honesty. She made death real. And frightening. But she did it gently, in a remarkably powerful way.
“It’s a pretty surreal experience to be told you have cancer,” she wrote. “It’s hard to know how to react. After three hours of tests and consultations and an anxious 20 minutes in the ‘private waiting room’ (you know it’s not good when they take you to your own waiting room), 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.’ Your mind can’t quite take it in, so it doesn’t. A prime example of someone in the ‘denial phase’.
“We were whisked away by a cancer nurse for the post bad news pep-talk. ‘Be positive,’ she said. That’s tricky when you’ve just been told you have cancer at 38, I thought.”
That was Rachael. Even in the darkest moments she could be deadpan. In truth there were plenty of times when friends and I feared the worst: “She’s going to die, isn’t she,” became our stock response when she posted anything new. Tales of oncology departments and scans and chemo sessions. Of cold caps and strange pills and hair loss. And then she’d write of the anger, the depression, the sadness. Even from a distance it was brutal.
— Cennydd Roberts (@CennyddRoberts) September 5, 2018
I remember standing in the kitchen at 5 Live making tea one day as she told me about the effects of the chemotherapy, what was happening to her hair, the shock of that cold cap. Again, it’s trite to say it but it was all just done with a smile. Like it was an everyday thing to be told that her end is more nigh than mine. And I’d go back to my desk and think again, ‘She’s going to die, isn’t she?’ Whilst I did that, Rachael went home and wrote stuff like this:
“In the past I’d always found it a bit naff when people were described as ‘battling’ cancer, like you picked up a sword and shield and went at it like a medieval knight. Or when cancer was humanised with an evil persona. F*** you cancer, you bastard… and all those rallying cries you hear. Journalism really taints you with a sense of cynicism for such platitudes! But now I am facing it I actually find it helpful to think of my tumour as a villain whom I need to fight against. My twitter bio now reads ‘currently punching cancer in the face’. Mentally I am preparing and visualising myself posturing theatrically like a wrestler, muscles flexed, face snarling…you will not take me away from all those that I love, it is not my time……cancer I’m coming for you.”
I don’t know how she found the words or the courage. She launched a podcast, ‘You, Me & the Big C’, which changed the conversation around cancer and death forever. Part of her legacy is that what she achieved in the final two years of her life will make confronting that hateful illness that much easier for hundreds of thousands of people. As her husband Steve wrote after her death was announced, “At the end, though her body was at its weakest, her voice was at its strongest and most powerful.”
Even when she was told there was nothing more the doctors could do, that her cancer was terminal, she was able to convey it simply and remarkably. “Sorry Rachael - it’s back and it’s incurable,” she wrote. “My D-Day call - I jokingly refer to it as ‘Death-Day’ - came back in April, while I was out playing with my three-year-old son. Hearing those words ripped the air right out of my lungs and I had to lean against a wall to steady myself. Holding in the huge sobs I knew were coming, I just needed to get home and call my surgeon in peace with my husband Steve at my side. On the short journey back, I wept and kept telling Freddie, ‘I’m so sorry.’ This cancer is growing wildly throughout my body and I can’t put that down to anyone else but me. It’s a terrible feeling that my body has some role in putting my family though the pain I know awaits them.”
I can’t remember the last conversation we had, in the main because it will have been about nothing much more than the minutiae of life. Perhaps it was just prior to her D-Day when she’d announced that the cancer had returned, more aggressively than ever before.
I was in that same BBC kitchen when all of a sudden, she was standing next to me. I had no idea what to say and so we stood awkwardly in silence whilst someone filled a bottle of water. Then she simply turned and said, “Just ask.”
So I did, and we talked in the same way we’d always done. The same way in which she wrote in her blog and spoke on her brilliant podcast. Whether you truly accept that you’re going to die, when all you know is life, is a question I hope I never have to answer. I’m frightened of death. Yet listening to her somehow made it seem less tragic. As we removed our teabags from their respective cups she told me she wasn’t afraid of anything. I knew what she meant yet I didn’t know how to respond. So, I said nothing much of anything worthwhile. In hindsight that probably was the last time we spoke, although I’ve heard those words in my head many times in the last few weeks.
On Monday she tweeted the following: “In the words of the legendary Frank S - I’m afraid the time has come my friends. And suddenly. I’m told I’ve only got days. It’s very surreal. Thank you so much for all the support I’ve received. Debs and lozz will continue with the #youmebigc podcast. Au revoir my friends.”
She died peacefully, surrounded by her family.
Au revoir, Rachael Bland.
In the words of the legendary Frank S - I’m afraid the time has come my friends. And suddenly. I’m told I’ve only got days. It’s very surreal. Thank you so much for all the support I’ve received. Debs and lozz will continue with the #youmebigc podcast. Au revoir my friends. 💋💋 pic.twitter.com/DhMurbqMJz
— Rachael Bland (@Rachael_Hodges) September 3, 2018