Deborah James: The bowel cancer campaigner says goodbye

·6 min read
Deborah James, who campaigns for bowel cancer awareness and fundraising, has moved into hospice care (YouTube)
Deborah James, who campaigns for bowel cancer awareness and fundraising, has moved into hospice care (YouTube)

Earlier this week, cancer campaigner Deborah James 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 posts 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 has 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 has 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 last five years since her diagnosis, James has run marathons, organised a charity ball, and taken 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 is 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 have resonated with hundreds of thousands of listeners across the UK.

No cancer-related topic if off limits in James’ podcast discussions and her online column for The Sun, Things Cancer Made Me Say. From the brutal effects that chemotherapy has 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, now 40, wrote in her social media posts on Monday 9 May that this was “the message I never wanted to write” but added that she is surrounded by her “incredible family”. James is married to Pomona Capital banker Sebastien Bowen, with whom she shares two children, 14-year-old Hugo and 12-year-old Eloise.

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 teacher. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 bowel cancer in December 2016 and has shared her journey in seeking treatment with her 300,000 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 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 Degree of Doctor of Civil Law 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 published on Monday 9 May, James performed her final big act of charity by launching the 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 £1 million on 10 May. As of Friday 13 May, the fund has raised more than £4 million. In an Instagram Story, James wrote: “The most generous people I know. Let’s show cancer who is boss!”

James has also been honoured with a damehood for her campaigning efforts. Announcing the news on Thursday 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 has 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, James said she is “blown away” and “crying at the honour”.

In a message on her Bowelbabe Fund website, James said she plans 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!”