Photography by Holly McGlynn
At 31, cancer was the last thing on Lauren Mahon’s mind.
The Londoner had recently landed a managerial role in social media and moved out of her parents’ home into an apartment, enjoying her first taste of proper independence. Her energy went toward nights out with friends, attending gigs and festivals, and grand plans for holiday trips. “Your 30s are the best years of your life,” popular culture insists, and Mahon was staged to prove it.
So, when she accidentally found a lump in her breast in May of 2016, she didn’t think much of it. She waited for the completion of her cycle to see if it went away; instead it grew painful.
Mahon visited a walk-in clinic at a hospital sometime in early July, where it was confirmed she did indeed have a lump in her breast that may benefit from further scans. However, having just moved and not yet set up with a general practitioner, Mahon was unable to receive the proper referral to do so. But the doctor at the clinic assured her that it likely wasn’t anything serious.
“He was like, ‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. You’re young and you’re healthy,’” Mahon recalls. “So, I just went off and had a summer.”
The doctor’s absence of concern due to Mahon’s age and medical history left her feeling confident that the lump in her breast was something minor—something that wasn’t life-threatening or perhaps was the odd fluke that our bodies are inclined to experience now and then.
“But then it got to be all this time, and it was still there,” Mahon says. In August, at her mother’s insistence, Mahon visited a general practitioner. A week later, she took a morning off from work and headed to a referred breast clinic for what she assumed would be a casual appointment. It turned out to be anything but.
“It was such a weird thing of being on the ultrasound table, just chatting away with the radiographers and everything like that, and then the room just changing,” Mahon says. “It’s still so vivid, that energetic shift in the room. And [the consultant] didn’t say anything, just marched over to one of the more senior members of staff who was like, ‘Lauren, we have to biopsy you.’”
Afterwards, Mahon’s doctors informed her that something looked “suspicious” and it could be cancer. Mahon was shocked. Even during the biopsy, she hadn’t thought of the possibility of cancer—she was just focused on getting through the procedure. The word “cancer” had never entered her brain, but now it was all she could think about.
In the days leading up to finding out the definitive results of her biopsy, friends and family assured Mahon with steadfast conviction that it couldn’t be cancer. As much as she wanted to believe them, she found it difficult to do so. “It was a horrible feeling of knowing in my gut that it wasn’t going to be OK but hoping that it would be,” says Mahon. “It’s just a really horrible, horrible anxious time.”
On the day Mahon was slated to receive her results, her mom and younger brother accompanied her to the doctor’s office, where they held her hand, blinking back tears as Mahon was told she had an aggressive 2.8-centimeter grade III cancerous lump in her right breast.
While treatable, the treatment would likely induce an early menopause and leave Mahon infertile. Mahon hadn’t yet given much thought about having children someday, and suddenly she was being asked to decide if she wanted to preserve eggs immediately after being told she had cancer. “It’s like the world fell around me,” Mahon recalls.
In the weeks that followed, Mahon went through a period of deep grief, something especially unique to those who experience cancer as young adults and are faced with their own mortality. She slept in her parents’ bed for days and found herself bursting into tears while having a drink in pubs with friends. Already having health anxiety prior, Mahon says her diagnosis robbed her of any remaining innocence—any pain or cough instantly transformed into an insidious warning bell, the quick draw from a pal’s cigarette was now a ticking time bomb.
And, at least in the beginning, the diagnosis also robbed Mahon of her perceived future.
“I thought, ‘We have all these big life milestones, why does cancer have to be the first one for me? Why did that happen? There’s so much of my life that I haven’t lived yet,’” Mahon says. “I was terrified that I would never get those things.”
According to Cancer Research UK, the rates of cancers in young people have increased by 28 percent since the early 1990s, with cancer rates in females increasing by 40 percent. Young people with cancer is an underserved demographic across the globe, with risk factors being misunderstood and support often being lackluster.
Mahon experienced this firsthand as she scoured the internet in the early stages of her diagnosis. “I was looking for women like me: my age, my kind of interests, my worldviews. Someone I could look at and go, ‘She’s a bit of me,’” Mahon explains. “And I struggled to find them.” There was so much about the process that Mahon felt utterly in the dark about.
Mahon today is unapologetically herself—a bright force with contagious energy, slipping in unfiltered quips all while masterfully balancing vulnerability and an air of intrigue. When scrolling through her Instagram feed, it’s difficult to imagine her as reserved and self-contained.
In reality, Mahon didn’t share her own story publicly online until her first week of chemotherapy in October of 2016. Seeing the lack of cancer narratives from somebody like herself, she pushed through her hesitancy and “grabbed her breast cancer diagnosis by the boobs,” deciding to write her own narrative.
Using the blog that she already owned, as well as her Instagram, Mahon began posting about her experiences with cancer under #GIRLvsCANCER. She hoped doing so would not only educate and unite women her age with cancer but empower them as well. She crafted posts teeming with authenticity that detailed the ugly but unavoidable parts of being a young adult with cancer, from loneliness to financial strain.
“[Cancer] just wasn’t what I thought,” Mahon says. “Now, I know it like the back of my hand. But back then it was so overwhelming, and I had just wished that I could have a cup of tea with someone, like a friend, who had been through it and talked to them. That’s why I started speaking about it.”
GIRLvsCANCER has since grown into an established community, featuring entries about all sorts of cancer-related topics from women with all sorts of cancer types. To Mahon, it was imperative to feature the narratives of women other than herself.
“It’s not just about my stories, it’s about new ones,” Mahon says. “I want to be able to support everybody and not just be ‘The Cancer Girl’ and put myself in that position because it’s not realistic. I’ve got one version of cancer. There’s so many millions of versions of the disease and stories. It’s not just mine.”
Mahon is now in remission from invasive ductal carcinoma, and while she’s very much ready to embrace no longer fully “living in cancer” online (keep an eye out for a personal website launch coming this August), she doesn’t think she’ll leave GIRLvsCANCER behind anytime soon. In addition to co-hosting her BBC podcast “You, Me and the Big C,” Mahon plans to continue developing GIRLvsCANCER into a wealth of information and community for other young women experiencing life-changing diagnoses.
“It started out as something to support people, even just one girl, and the fact that I now have so many people in the community, that I’ve got amazing friends and that the thing that connects us is cancer but we’re all such individual women and we’re amazing—I just want to give that empowerment to people,” Mahon says. “You’re more than your diagnosis and you don’t need to be defined by it.”