In this, the first of Red's Meet Your Hero series, Anya Meyerowitz meets personal hero Lauren Mahon. We believe we rise by lifting others so here we are celebrating, connecting with and interviewing our heroes...
I first came across Lauren Mahon's Instagram while on holiday in Sri Lanka when one of the hotel managers told us about the woman who had stayed a few weeks earlier.
‘She was post-chemo and just came out here to relax,’ he said, a warm smile melting across his face, ‘we popped over one night to bring them some wine and found her and her friend just dancing on the terrace. She was utterly lovely, and friendly and had such a brilliant attitude towards life.’
Later that evening I looked her up on Instagram, intrigued by what I’d heard. I didn’t realise just how inspirational, motivational and down-right intoxicating the woman I found would be.
Lauren was open and honest in her Instagram stories, she chatted to the camera so authentically that it felt as if you were FaceTiming a friend. She talked of the good days, the great days and the bad days (she is currently going through menopause at 31-years-old to help keep her breast cancer from returning).
She was diagnosed with cancer in the August of 2016 after she found a large lump in her right breast in late May.
I watched her quit her job to go freelance, try on clothes for a holiday to Marrakesh and become the brains (and boobs) behind , her campaign and community, which amongst other things, sells tit tees and donates a big cut of the profit to cancer charities. In short, I had a girl crush.
So when Lauren turned up at my office (I’d invited her, it wasn’t just the stars aligning) I felt momentarily nervous – the way I assume a child feels in the queue to meet and greet their favourite popstar.
Lauren was petite, much more so than I had imagined, but she managed to get her arms round me in a bear hug greeting as she apologised for being so sweaty (it was 30 degrees aside and she had run from the BBC, where she had been talking to Greg Whyte for her podcast You, Me and The Big C).
We chatted, posed for photos and chatted some more. I asked all the questions I’d collected since coming across Lauren and she spoke candidly about cancer, anxiety and life as a freelancer.
What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?
I’d love to say that I do something really zen but the first thing that I do is check my emails and social media notifications and then it's straight into the shower. I want to try and wake up and read but I haven’t managed it just yet!
At the end of a long, exhausting day what’s your go-to thing to switch off?
Working for yourself means that there is no real cut off point so I always make sure that by nine that I am in bed, with some chocolate, and watching a TV series.
Talk us through how you prioritise what you spend time on – with the pulls of family, work, self-care etc – how do you decide what to put your energy into?
I’m one of those people who wants to do everything and then what happens is that I overcomplicate everything, so I’m learning to prioritise.
One big decision I’ve made recently is to not take on private clients so that I can focus on GIRLvsCANCER and my health. I realised what I was trying to do was be a social media consultant, be an influencer, be a business owner for GIRLvsCANCER, do a podcast and then just fitting my health in around that when actually that really needs to come first.
So now I allocate two days to meetings and things like that, and that gives me three more flexible days so if I’m up in the night with hot flushes (due to the menopause) then I can sleep in or if I’m feeling a bit low I can go to an exercise class or go for a run. It just helps me manage my health and happiness much better.
I also don’t drink in the week anymore but I do still see friends and every weekend I try and go and see my family on the other side of London. Instead of clubbing now, I choose to see my parents.
Tell us about some of your personal heroes – what women inspire you and why?
I feel quite fortunate in the job that I have (social media and digital marketing) that I’ve been able to meet some really inspirational people. For example Lindsay Holland (), I’m always impressed by her, she used to be a physiotherapist and then started blogging. The blog started doing well and she decided she wanted to really see where she could take it so she put her head for two years and now she’s flying: she’s in all sorts of campaigns and I’m so proud of her.
Also my sister is such an inspiration to me – she’s my little sister but she nurtured me when I was poorly and is an incredible mum to my nephew. She’s incredibly clever but she went to university and hated it so instead became a mum which - something much more important to her. I think we can all feel we have to be a marketing director or something to be a success but my sister is proof that being a success can be about just being an incredible person.
Have you ever met a personal hero of yours? Tell us about it
Kris Hallenga is the founder of , she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at 23. I’ve always thought that what she has done is incredible, building this charity through her own experience and getting women to check their breasts. I threw a fundraiser last year called ‘Not A Pity Party’ to raise money for CoppaFeel! and Kris came and was just so inspiring – not because she is spouting wisdom all the time but because she has a really kind heart. And she said to me at the event, ‘you’re really good at this, you should keep going,’ and here I am today with GIRLvsCANCER.
Do you have a personal mantra, or piece of advice that motivates you?
I think for me before I got ill I always lived by the saying, ‘love all, trust few, do wrong to none.’
Since I’ve been sick I’ve really felt that we should do what makes us happy. We don’t have to apologise or make excuses for doing what feels right to us, as long as you’re not hurting anyone in the process. Instead of worrying about the future, I try and just live in the now because life is so fleeting.
What is the thing that gets you up in the morning? The thought that carries you through tough, challenging seasons?
I think for me, I now always remember that things pass. Whereas before I would get very consumed by doubt and fear and really sink into feeling overwhelmed, now I just think, ‘okay, how do I get to the other side of this?’. That might mean cancelling a meeting or making a plan with family or do something to give myself some headspace.
Generally my thought process is: 'you've been through chemotherapy so calm down for a minute, breathe and come back to it with fresh eyes', and it does work.
Talk us through what prompted you to go to the doctor’s initially and what happened post diagnosis.
I had found this large lump in my lower right breast. I’ve always had endometriosis and ovarian cysts and my lady parts have never really played by the rules, so I just assumed that it was a cyst. I wasn’t worried, I was just waiting for it to go away.
Six-weeks after I found the lump I began to feel little shooting pains so I decided to go to the walk-in clinic near my house. The doctor felt it and said, ‘I’m not worried, you’re young and you’ve got no family history but you must go and get any lump checked.’
I think because he was so relaxed about it, it lulled me into feeling relaxed about it too and so I left it until early August when I went to a friend’s wedding in Italy. I had a panic attack while I was there and I think that was when I really felt, this is my subconscious telling me that something is really not right.
So I went to the doctor’s a few weeks later and she felt the lump and fast-tracked me to the breast clinic.
I went for a scan five days later. When the consultant started the scan she immediately called someone else in to have a look, and I knew something was wrong. They scheduled me in for a biopsy and said, ‘you’ll get the results in five days and if it is cancer then we will d a CT scan and an MRI.’
My mum and little brother accompanied me to my appointment five days later where I was given the news, that I did have cancer, I literally felt like the world collapsed.
The first thing I said was, ‘I don’t want to die’ and they said, ‘you’re not going to, this is just going to be an inconvenience for a while.’ I was taken aback, I always thought cancer killed.
I slept in my mum’s bed for the next two weeks.
You think the scariest bit is being told you’ve got cancer but actually it’s everything that happens afterward. Being put into machines and prodded and poked and checked.
Much of your life now is based around cancer, does that trigger your health anxiety or is it helpful because it’s constantly an open conversation?
It’s a bit of both. If I’m feeling really low or anxious then I find it hard. Of course it’s triggering, it makes you think about your own fate and your own mortality but at the same time being so close to it is my way of keeping an eye on it. I didn’t want to separate myself from cancer once I was in remission and put it in a box because I think that boxes have a habit of springing open. I also believe in fate and this journey has helped me help other people so maybe this was all meant to happen.
People die. Whether my cancer comes back or not, I will die at some point. I think that being so close to death, in terms of talking about it, being around those with cancer who are facing that as a current reality, has helped me come to terms with the idea of death as a part of life rather than it being this big, scary monster.
I am much more accepting of death now.
How does your health affect your daily life now?
I do suffer with anxiety and also Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which I am still trying to figure out. I know I am go, go, go because I don’t like to stop and think about what’s happened .
It’s been a process but I’m much more accepting of what I need now, in the cancer world they call it ‘the new normal’.
It's still tough. I get up in the morning and my body creaks and aches, I get hot flushes and I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep since the beginning of the year because I wake up with night sweats.
Lately I've been struggling with low mood. The menopause (which Lauren had induced to prevent her cancer from returning) is dulling my spark a bit, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to do what I want to do and have nothing to give. It feels like being depressed but I’m not depressed, so I know it’s menopause.
I’m in the process of getting acupuncture and perhaps trying antidepressants, I’ve started exercising again and I’m just looking at different ways to manage it.
How did GIRLvsCANCER come about and what are your plans with it for the future?
GIRLvsCANCER was a coping mechanism that turned into something much bigger. When I got diagnosed I didn’t tell anyone for two weeks until I knew what was really happening but I knew I did want to talk about it.
Originally GIRLvsCANCER was just a hashtag I wanted to tell my story through, and it was meant to just be a small section on my . But within a week I’d decided I wanted to make my ‘tit tees’ and raise the issue of breast cancer and encourage people to check their breasts, without it being really scary.
But things started to progress, people got in , my Instagram grew and brands wanted to work with me. I don’t want to be the poster girl for cancer, I can’t be, that’s why I wanted it to be a community where other people could share their stories and support each other.
Jubliees Tit -Tee, £28
Jugs Tit-Tee, £28
When I was diagnosed with cancer I was given the details of a women’s Facebook group for those in the same position as me. I logged on only to be met with a barrage of people talking about scary symptoms and their diagnosis with second stage cancer. It wasn’t supportive, it was terrifying. I wanted to create a space that was about positivity and support, I didn’t want to be a charity myself, there are plenty doing brilliant things already.
I’m also trying to find women of other ethnicities to come on and talk on the site because there’s a real under representation in the cancer world. I don’t want girls of colour to come onto the site and just be met with a sea of white faces.
I want to take it offline too, I’ve got lots of things on the horizon: a partnership with a cab company to offer discounts for those travelling back from chemo appointments, a collaboration with a hairdressers for those losing their hair through treatment and all sorts of fun events and meet-ups.
Lauren and I spent four hours together and I wish I had the space here to tell you every little nugget of wisdom she imparted on me that day. I waved her off into the evening with a full heart– sometimes you meet your hero and they are everything you expected them to be and more. Sometimes you meet your hero and find yourself a new friend at the same time.
If you are as enchanted by Lauren as I am, you can find more of her on her website , or on her Instagram . You can also view the full range of Tit-Tees on her online shop .
Photography by . Find Anya on .