How the rebellious hope of Deborah James captured the heart of the nation

·8-min read
How the rebellious hope of Deborah James captured the heart of the nation

Her listeners and supporters are collectively coming to terms with the news that BBC podcaster Deborah James, who has been fighting stage 4 bowel cancer since 2016, has stopped active treatment and has moved to hospice-at-home care.

“I can’t make a deal with the devil anymore unfortunately. I just feel gutted not to have more life, ‘cos you know me, I love life so much,” she told the BBC in an interview. “We have tried everything, but my body simply isn’t playing ball,” she continued in an Instagram post, before adding that her focus is now on making sure she’s not in pain and spending time with her family. James has two children, Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, with her husband Sebastien Bowen, a banker at Pomona Capital.

Deborah James aka the Bowel Babe

“I’ve had some really hard conversations during the last week,” she told BBC Breakfast. “You think, ‘Gosh, how can anyone have those conversations?’ and then you find yourself in the middle of them. And people are very nice, but you’re talking about your own death and I’ve had five years to prepare for my death. It’s really hard. The thing that I know, because I trust my husband - he’s just the most wonderful man and so is my family and I know that my kids are going to be more than looked after and surrounded by love.

“You always want to know as a mother - are your kids going to be OK? And my kids are going to be fine. But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss every chance I could have had with them.”

James was told early on in her diagnosis she had less than 8 per cent chance of surviving longer than five years, a milestone that she passed on Christmas of 2021.

The You, Me, The Big C podcast host announced the tragic news that she was receiving end-of-life care on Instagram this week with a link to the Bowel Babe Fund. The fundraiser for Cancer Research UK will go towards personalised medicine for cancer patients, and to support campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer. In an interview with the BBC, she explained that were it not for experimental treatments, she would have died at least two years ago and wants to give others the same opportunities.

Donations from over 90,000 people have already flooded in, with the pot currently at more than £3 million after raising £1 million within 24 hours. It’s a figure which far exceeded her fundraising goal of £250,000. James has even attracted the attention of the royals with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge donating to her fund. “Every now and then, someone captures the heart of the nation with their zest for life & tenacious desire to give back to society. @bowelbabe is one of those special people,” they wrote on their official instagram account. “Thank you for giving hope to so many who are living with cancer.”

The former deputy headteacher turned campaigner has built an audience of 500,000 Instagram followers thanks to her intimate insights into her cancer experience. Here we track the rebellious hope that the inspirational woman has shown in her six-year battle with the disease.

Deborah James has opened up about her fear of dying and not seeing her two children grow up (Deborah James / Instagram)
Deborah James has opened up about her fear of dying and not seeing her two children grow up (Deborah James / Instagram)

Life before the Big C

James worked in education for 15 years as a deputy head teacher, where she led national research into growth mindsets in schools. Prior to her diagnosis, she was training for headship and would regularly work 12-hour days. Even though she left teaching after the diagnosis, the decision was an extremely hard one.

“I know for some people not having to work sounds like the ideal situation, but I mourned the loss of my job,” Deborah recalls. “It sent me into a massive depression. As a deputy head teacher, I was a professional forward planner; I always knew what was happening a year in advance, and suddenly I didn’t know what was happening from hour to hour on a daily basis.”

The idle Thursday evening that changed everything

At 7pm on Thursday 15 December 2016, the then 35-year-old received the news that would change her life. "I’m the perfect example of a textbook hypochondriac, one that immediately thinks dizziness means a brain tumour, a cough means lung cancer, and blood in the stools means bowel cancer,” she told Bowel Cancer UK. “However, years of CBT has meant that I’ve learnt to rationalise every ailment – including the last year of a change in bowel habits that I put down to too much wine, a new job and stress of trying to be that full time working ‘super mum’.”

Deborah James (Deborah James)
Deborah James (Deborah James)

In an interview with The Times, James explained her journey to finding out she had cancer. “I was losing weight and my bowel habits had changed. There was blood in my poo,” she said of her symptoms. However, whenever she went to the doctors they would send her away citing that it was probably haemorrhoids or Crohn’s disease. “Eventually I got to see a specialist and had a colonoscopy. I asked if it was bowel cancer but I didn’t hit any of the criteria. I was young, fit and vegetarian,” she continued. “My consultant said if he had a list of possible diagnoses, cancer wouldn’t be on it. Sadly he was wrong.”

It took six months for them to find out what was wrong, and by the time they did, the cancer had spread to different parts of her body, including her lungs. According to Bowel Cancer UK, more than nine out of 10 people diagnosed with stage one bowel cancer survive five years or more. By stage four, that figure is less than one in 10. What’s more, it turned out that James had a mucinous tumour found in 10 per cent of bowel cancers and it had a particularly rare BRAF mutation.

Within an hour of finding out, she was booked in for a CT scan at the hospital the following day and was scheduled for her first of many operations the next month. “My husband and I left the hospital numb to embark upon the most surreal period and roller coaster of our lives,” she spoke of her first post-diagnosis hospital appointment. “We drove straight to Lee and Sanderman and Sebastien in true ‘c’est la vie’ style, asked for the most expensive bottle in the shop – a beautifully rich, Leoville Barton 1996, and we proceed to polish it off as though Armageddon was scheduled for 7pm the next day.”

Deborah James (Deborah James / the Bowel Babe)
Deborah James (Deborah James / the Bowel Babe)

Learning how to “face the big C, live your life and still be yourself”

Rather than surrender to the deep depression which understandably took hold, James started a blog, Bowel Babe, which became the award-winning, weekly column in the Sun online, Things Cancer Made Me Say. She also started co-hosting the BBC podcast You, Me & the Big C in 2018 alongside Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland, the latter of whom sadly died from breast cancer in 2018 six weeks after season two aired

Asked what hosting the podcast meant to her, James said it had given purpose back to her life after being diagnosed, adding the show had made her realise the influence she could have "saving another life or making someone not feel alone".

On top of her campaigning efforts, the mum-of-two has raised £60,000 for Bowel Cancer UK. In recent years, she has run the Vitality London 10,000, organised a charity ball, and galvanised her family and friends to complete the Royal Parks half marathon, as well as taking part in many of the charity’s fundraising challenges. She was deservedly named JustGiving Celebrity Fundraiser of the Year in 2019.

Deborah James (Deborah James / the Bowel Babe)
Deborah James (Deborah James / the Bowel Babe)

In her final column for The Sun, she said: “I can’t get my head around the idea that I won’t see my kids grow up - that I will no longer be a part of life that I love so much. I am not brave – I am not dignified going towards my death – I am simply a scared girl who is doing something she has no choice in but I know I am grateful for the life that I have had.”

Signing off tearfully in the final episode of her podcast, she told listeners: “That’s it from me, I can’t believe it, which is a very sad thing to say. I’m pleased I’ve got to the point where I can say it. We’ll see each other again, somewhere, somehow, dancing. Until then, please, please, just enjoy life because it’s so precious. All I want right now is more time and more life.”

She also ended a show with her long-running caution for people to “check your poo” for signs of bowel or other cancers, adding: “Come on, I can’t leave on any other word.”

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