Putting your heart on the line by appearing on ‘First Dates Hotel’ is never easy. But for 33-year-old Lauren Mahon, venturing back into dating after having surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer, the decision to put herself out there came with a special significance. And then, Channel 4 matched her with a friend.
Viewers will remember the heartbreaking moment Lauren admitted to Pat that she did have feelings for him – only to hear that he didn’t feel the same way. “I felt heartbroken for myself a little bit,” she admits. In fact, she didn’t date for the year between filming and the show airing. “I came off all the apps, I decided feeling a connection felt so important and so strong that I wanted it again, but I wanted it with someone who felt the same back.”
Not only did she have to come to terms with the rejection, but Lauren also had to wait 12 months for the show to air – 12 months in which she tortured herself with what people would think. “For a whole year, in my head I had berated myself and been like ’Oh my God, you massively mugged yourself off on television,” she explains. “‘You cried over a boy. You cried over a boy that you know and that your friends know. You are never going to live this down.’”
Lauren, who co-presented podcast ‘You Me and The Big C’ with Rachael Bland, who died last month, is the kind of woman you instantly want to be friends with: she swears like a sailor, laughs a lot and goes in for a big hug at the end of our interview. But, she admits, her apparent confidence is sometimes a front. Pre-cancer, her approach to dating – which she characterises as “you, me, home?” – was a form of self-preservation; a way of protecting herself from emotional intimacy and possible rejection. After her diagnosis in 2016, she re-evaluated what she wanted in life.
“When I got ill, I turned around to the doctor and said: ‘But I haven’t got married and had kids’. And then was like: ‘What the hell! I didn’t even know I wanted those things,’” she recalls.
Yet after she received the all clear, she reverted to old behaviour, threw herself back into dating and relit some old flames. “I wanted to feel like me again because you don’t feel sexy at all when you have chemo. You feel like a vessel, like a potato with a smile,” she says. It was only after her appearance on ‘First Dates Hotel’ that she decided to step off the dating treadmill.
Now, one year of self-care later, Lauren has downloaded dating app Hinge again, and says she is always upfront about her cancer and its longterm impact with potential partners.
For Lauren, a side effect of cancer treatment was early menopause, but before beginning chemo, she had some of her eggs frozen in order to preserve her fertility. To get the hormones needed for the treatment without missing out on millennial life, she’d ask friends to stab her with a needle in pub toilets. “Looking back I realise my headspace was just somewhere else,” she admits.
Now, however, she’s feels grateful to have been given the option of freezing her eggs – if she doesn’t meet someone before she’s 40, she’ll probably go it alone and use the eggs with donor sperm. “You want to share your life with someone,” she notes. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a fella, does it?”
She was prepared for the hair-loss and tiredness – but an unexpected side effect of cancer was how much it impacted her friendships. Lauren would like the impact of that on younger patients to be considered more. “I was a big old party girl before I got it - caned it all the time,” she smiles. “When that’s how your social scene operates and you’re no longer able to participate in that, it changes a lot.”
She’d also like to see greater support for younger patients returning to work. “Just because the cancer’s gone, it doesn’t mean that you’re ‘you’,” she says. “It takes a long, long time for your stamina to return and for your brain function to come back.” Although Lauren’s employer was supportive, her experience of treatment gave her the motivation to focus full-time on Girl Vs Cancer - an online community for young women dealing with “the cretin that is cancer”.
As well as personal blog posts and tips, the site sells “tit-tees”, bags and jumpers to raise breast cancer awareness, with 25% of profits distributed equally between the charities who helped Lauren through diagnosis and treatment: CoppaFeel, Future Dreams, Look Good Feel Better and Trekstock.
Lauren’s key advice for patients visiting the site, or for any young women with cancer, is to take each day as it comes and not force yourself to be strong.
“Even with Rachael [Bland], she knew she had a terminal illness, but she still had good days, she still lived and she was still happy,” she says. “Have faith in yourself that whatever situation you’re in it will pass - I don’t necessarily mean your cancer will go away because for some people that isn’t the case – but in that moment, when you’re feeling ‘this is overwhelming’, you will get to the other side of that moment.”
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she also has one clear message for all women of all ages: feel your boobs. “You’re not looking for cancer. What you’re doing is knowing your body, because if you don’t know your body, it takes you a while to realise the change. But if you do realise a change, you can go to your doctor and tell them about it – and that’s empowering,” she says.
The two years since her diagnosis have also been an empowering time for Lauren. Before she became ill, she’d find herself – like many other people – comparing herself to others, and noting each tiny flaw. “I still do it sometimes. But what I always try and do is go back and remember myself with cancer, say ‘you had no eyelashes, you had no eyebrows, you were bloated beyond belief and you had rashes all over your skin. At that point all you wanted was to be the girl you were six months before’.
“I don’t really give a shit now. I think, I’m not super ugly, I’m not super hot. I’m somewhere between JLo and Quasimodo. That will do.”
But the biggest thing she’s learnt about herself is that she’s tougher than she thought. “I’m made of tougher stuff and I can handle it,” she says. “Whatever life throws at me, I’ll find a way to make it work. And not just get through it, but make it something worthwhile.”