Video: Dame Deborah James' family, Lauren Mahon and Steve Bland share their thoughts on receiving honorary doctorates.
The honours recognise the immeasurable impact that they and their award-winning podcast have had on cancer patients and their loved ones – through open and honest insights into life with advanced cancer.
Dame Deborah was recognised posthumously by the ICR and her parents accepted the honour on behalf of her family.
Dame Deborah, Lauren Mahon, and Rachael Bland – three friends who each had been diagnosed with cancer – launched the You, Me and the Big C podcast in March 2018.
Rachael, who was a journalist and BBC radio broadcaster, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in November 2016. Deborah had been a deputy head teacher but began writing about her own bowel cancer diagnosis as a journalist and columnist for The Sun, while posting updates on social media under the moniker Bowelbabe.
Lauren was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 and created her now charity GIRLvsCANCER an inclusive patient-led community for all cancer experiences.
The You, Me and the Big C podcast, with its light-hearted and honest tone, was both popular with listeners and a critical success – winning numerous awards.
After Rachael’s death in September 2018, her widower Steve became a co-host of the podcast. Steve brought a different experience and viewpoint to the show – listeners learned first-hand how a cancer diagnosis can affect a person’s loved ones, and the impact of losing someone to cancer.
They each receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Science (Medicine), acknowledging the outstanding contribution they have made to raising awareness of living with cancer, and the importance of cancer research.
Lauren, Steve, and Deborah’s family joined graduating students from the ICR, and the other two distinguished recipients of honorary degrees at an award ceremony on Tuesday 6 September at the Guildhall in the City of London.
Professor Sir Peter Ratcliffe received an honorary doctorate in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the fundamental understanding of oxygen sensing, with its profound implications for the treatment of disease, including cancer.
Sir Peter is Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Oxford and Director of Clinical Research at the Francis Crick Institute.
Sir Peter’s outstanding career has been defined by making groundbreaking discoveries as a basic scientist alongside working as a clinician in the NHS.
His discoveries have made major contributions to our understanding of how cells sense and respond to low levels of oxygen, known as hypoxia. Together with Professors William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza, Sir Peter won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this research. Their work is expected to lead to new treatments for various diseases including cancer, where low oxygen levels are a feature of many tumours.
Sir Peter was knighted for services to medicine in the 2014 New Year's Honours.
Professor Peter Rigby received an honorary doctorate in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the furtherance of cancer research as an exceptional leader and as a world-class scientist whose discoveries transformed our understanding of gene expression during embryogenesis.
Peter is Professor Emeritus of Developmental Biology at the ICR, where he served as Chief Executive from 1999 until 2011, and Chair of the Babraham Institute.
Peter has made outstanding contributions to cancer research as both a leader and a scientist. As a molecular biologist, Peter has made important discoveries in embryology and the development of cancer. As the ICR’s Chief Executive he helped the research institute and charity become one of the UK’s leading academic research centres.
Peter helped show how cancer-causing viruses transform healthy cells into cancer cells and also improved our understanding of the regulation of RNA Polymerase III – an enzyme which plays a key role in controlling the growth of cells. His more recent work illuminated the mechanisms by which skeletal muscle is made in the embryo.
The ICR is able to award honorary degrees as a member institution of the University of London, and is also both a charity and a research institute. Today, the ICR is one of the world’s most influential cancer research organisations, and the world’s most successful academic institution at discovering new cancer drugs.
'One of the absolute proudest moments of my life'
Lauren Mahon, co-founder of the You, Me and the Big C podcast, who received an honorary degree from the ICR, said:
“We created You Me and the Big C in the hope that we'd be able to support even just one person affected by cancer, and provide a space where they could feel at home.
“To be honoured with a doctorate from the ICR as recognition of our contribution in raising awareness of the impact of cancer is mind-blowing, and one of the absolute proudest moments of my life.”
Steve Bland, co-presenter of the You, Me and the Big C podcast, who received an honorary degree from the ICR, said:
“Everyone involved in You, Me and the Big C is so proud of everything we’ve achieved with the podcast. Rachael, Lauren, Deborah, our producers Mike and Alex, and I have been lucky enough to speak to and become close friends with some incredible people and for me, it’s been a huge honour to be a part of something that has helped so many.
“We try to use our experiences to offer some hope and help people feel less alone whether they have cancer themselves or they’re experiencing the impact as a loved one. We love what we do and it truly is an honour to get this recognition from the ICR for our contributions to the cancer community.”
'We are so proud to accept the honour on Deborah's behalf'
Dame Deborah’s parents, Alistair and Heather James, received an honorary degree from the ICR on behalf of their daughter, Dame Deborah James, who co-founded the You, Me and the Big C podcast. Alistair said:
“We are so proud to accept the honour on Deborah's behalf, which really meant so much to her. Deborah worked tirelessly to raise awareness of bowel cancer and always championed the importance of cancer research. This honour represents the two focal points of her life, outside of her family, in the past five years to help many people with their own diagnosis by sharing her own experiences through different forms of communication and by teaching many people the benefits of sharing their journeys to help raise awareness to achieve early diagnosis.
“Her passion for research continued to shine through in her final days with the launch of the Bowelbabe Fund, which has raised more than £7.5 million. This, with the support of Cancer Research UK, will continue to fund causes and projects which Deborah was so passionate about and will include projects in collaboration with partners such as the ICR and their clinical partner, The Royal Marsden.”
Professor Sir Peter Ratcliffe, Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Oxford and Director of Clinical Research at the Francis Crick Institute, who received an honorary degree from the ICR, said:
“I am delighted to receive this recognition, which connects our work in discovery science with the ICR’s mission to defeat cancer and improve the lives of people living with the disease. It is a great honour to join such an admirable group of recipients.”
Professor Peter Rigby, Professor Emeritus of Developmental Biology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Chief Executive from 1999 until 2011, who received an honorary degree from the ICR, said:
“The ICR occupies a very special place in my heart. The time that I spent leading the institute was one of the highlights of my career.
“It is a great honour to be recognised in this way by a world-class institution that does such important work to benefit all members of society.”
'A great honour to celebrate and recognise such hugely deserving people'
Professor Kristian Helin, Chief Executive of the ICR, said:
“It’s a great honour to be able to celebrate and recognise such hugely deserving people with honorary degrees from the ICR.
“Dame Deborah, Lauren, and Steve have made an incredible impact through their podcast. It’s also important to recognise and remember Rachael’s contribution today. You, Me and the Big C has helped other people living with cancer to feel less alone, find out more about treatment, and been a showcase for advances in cancer research too.
“We’re extremely sorry that Deborah could not be here, but we are delighted that her family could attend and join us in honouring her amazing legacy, which continues to benefit so many people with cancer.
“We are very pleased also to recognise two hugely influential researchers and scientific leaders in Professor Sir Peter Ratcliffe and Professor Peter Rigby. Professor Sir Peter’s remarkable contributions to discovery science are likely to benefit cancer patients in the future and have already been recognised with a Nobel Prize.
“Alongside making important discoveries in developmental biology, Professor Rigby, as one of my predecessors as Chief Executive of the ICR, helped make the ICR one of the world’s leading cancer research institutions, and is hugely deserving of this honour.”