Dame Deborah James: The life and legacy of the bowel cancer campaigner

As the podcaster’s family announces Deborah James’ death, Kate Ng takes a closer look at how the educator became a cancer campaigner

Thursday 30 June 2022 11:46 BST

Dame Deborah James has died aged 40 after a six-year battle with bowel cancer.

In a statement posted to Instagram on Tuesday 28 June, her family said: “We are deeply saddened to announce the death of Dame Deborah James; the most amazing wife, daughter, sister, mummy. Deborah passed away peacefully today, surrounded by her family.

“Deborah, who many of you will know as Bowelbabe, was an inspiration and we are incredibly proud of her and her work and commitment to charitable campaigning, fundraising and her endless efforts to raise awareness of cancer that touched so many lives.

“Deborah shared her experience with the world to raise awareness, break down barriers, challenge taboos and change the conversation around cancer. Even in her most challenging moments, her determination to raise money and awareness was inspiring.

“We thank you for giving us time in private as a family, and we look forward to continuing Deborah’s legacy long into the future through the @bowelbabefund

“Thank you for playing your part in her journey, you are all incredible.

“And a few final things from Deborah…’find a life worth enjoying; take risks; love deeply; have no regrets; and always, always have rebellious hope. And finally, check your poo – it could just save your life.’”

On Monday 9 May, the campaigner announced she has been moved to hospice-at-home care. In a post on her social media channels, she said: “The time has come to say goodbye.”

Friends and followers commented on her post with messages of love and support, including podcast host Emily Clarkson, former Great British Bake Off winner Candice Brown, burn survivor and campaigner Katie Piper OBE, and ITV presenter Susanna Reid.

Clarkson wrote: “I love you Deb, thank you for being a phenomenal friend and relentless inspiration”, while Reid said: “You are the most incredible person. Sending my love to you and your family.”

“You changed so many people’s lives, you’ve spread so much joy and kindness,” added Piper. “An everlasting impact.”

Educator-turned-cancer campaigner James never shied away from the realities of her disease, ever since she was first diagnosed with Stage 4 bowel cancer in 2016, at the age of 35.

The podcast host worked ceaselessly to raise awareness around getting bowel cancer at a young age, through the Bowel Cancer UK charity’s Never Too Young campaign.

In the six years since her diagnosis, James ran marathons, organised a charity ball, and took part in numerous fundraising challenges between cancer treatments, successfully raising £60,000 for the charity by the time she was named a patron in February 2021.

I know we have left no stone unturned. But... my body just can’t continue anymore’

Deborah James

She was beloved for her sincere and candid approach to talking about her experience of living with the disease. Her frank discussions with co-hosts Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland on the award-winning podcast You, Me and the Big C resonated with hundreds of thousands of listeners across the UK.

No cancer-related topic was off limits in James’ podcast discussions and her online column for The Sun, Things Cancer Made Me Say. From the brutal effects that chemotherapy had on her body to near-death experiences, to celebrating her body in spite of internet trolls, James’ distinct voice paved the way for difficult, funny and intimate conversations about cancer.

James wrote in her social media posts on Monday 9 May that this was “the message I never wanted to write”, but added that she was surrounded by her “incredible family”. James was married to Pomona Capital banker Sebastien Bowen, with whom she shared two children, 14-year-old Hugo and 12-year-old Eloise.

In her post, she added: “Nobody knows how long I’ve got left.

“I know we have left no stone unturned. But even with all the innovative cancer drugs in the world or some magic new breakthrough, my body just can’t continue anymore.”

Before she became an outspoken campaigner and fundraiser for cancer treatment and awareness, James was a deputy head teacher. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 bowel cancer in December 2016 and has shared her journey in seeking treatment with her 600,000 Instagram followers ever since.

Detailing how she received her diagnosis in December 2016, James said she started seeking medical advice “after a change in bowel habits”, but was reassured by her doctors that nothing was wrong.

“And yet I was still losing weight, passing blood, going what felt like 100 times per day and feeling shattered,” she said. “I knew there was something wrong with me… for the first time I was afraid – very afraid about taking this further.”

James later went to a private medical provider to get a colonoscopy, which revealed a mucinous tumour, which is a subtype of colorectal cancer found in 10 to 15 per cent of bowel cancer patients.

The tumour also had a BRAF mutation, “the rarest and most hardest to treat due to its unresponsiveness to [chemotherapy], aggressive make up or lack of ‘wonder’ immunotherapy cure”, she wrote. The mutation occurs in a gene that makes a protein involved in cell growth, which can result in cells growing and dividing too fast.

James began co-presenting You, Me and the Big C in 2018. Her co-host Bland died six months after the show launched at the age of 40, having been diagnosed with breast cancer two years earlier.

The podcast won several awards after gaining praise for its “confessional booth” style of discussion about the disease. It won “Podcast of the Year” at the Television and Radio Industries Club awards in March 2019.

James also authored two books. The first is titled F*** You Cancer: How to face the Big C, live your life and still be yourself, published in 2018, and her second, How to live when you could be dead, came out in April 2021.

In 2020, James was named JustGiving Celebrity Fundraiser of the Year and was also awarded an honorary doctor of civil law degree at the Royal Marsden School, where she was invited to give a speech at the graduation ceremony.

My whole family are around me and we will dance through this together, sunbathing and laughing at every possible moment!

Deborah James

During the Covid-19 pandemic, James took it upon herself to highlight the impact the virus has had on cancer patients. She shared the personal stories of patients who were affected by tests and treatments being cancelled as a result of the lockdown in BBC Panorama’s Britain’s Cancer Crisis documentary, which was released on 6 July 2020.

As part of her goodbye message, James performed her final big act of charity by directing her followers to her Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK to raise money to fund clinical trials and research into personalised medicine for cancer patients, as well as supporting campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer.

Within 12 hours of the launch, the fund exceeded its initial target of £250,000 and reached £1m on 10 May. As of late June, the fund had raised more than £6m. In an Instagram Story, James wrote: “The most generous people I know. Let’s show cancer who is boss!”

James was also honoured with a damehood for her campaigning efforts. Announcing the news on 12 May, prime minister Boris Johnson said: “If ever an honour was richly deserved, this is it. Deborah has been an inspiration and her honesty, warmth and courage have been a source of strength to so many people.

“Through her tireless campaigning and by so openly sharing her experience she has not only helped in our fight against this terrible disease, she has ensured countless others with the Big C have not felt alone.”

Responding to the title in the weeks before her death, James said she was “blown away” and “crying at the honour”.

In a message on her Bowelbabe Fund website, James said she planned to take things “a day at a time, step by step and being grateful for another sunrise”.

“Everybody around me has been working crazy hard these past few weeks to get everything in place. My whole family are around me and we will dance through this together, sunbathing and laughing at every possible moment!”

Dame Deborah James, cancer campaigner and podcaster, born 1 October 1981, died 28 June 2022

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