In the last five years of her life, Deborah James, who has died aged 40 from cancer, never stopped talking about life as worth living. She did this as co-host of BBC Radio 5 Live’s award-winning, lively podcast about living with cancer, You, Me and the Big C, originally alongside broadcast journalist Rachael Bland, who died in 2018, and the Girl Vs Cancer founder and activist Lauren Mahon.
From its first episode in March 2018, frankness, honesty and humor were the unique selling points of the show, and Deborah, diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in December 2016, was its outrageous heart. She said that she had “the glam cancer”, and talked in detail about her experiences and symptoms, such as “pooing blood”, because “one of the biggest problems is that people aren’t frank enough”.
A month later, she was asking the Olympian athlete Steve Parry, who had a testicle removed as part of his treatment, if “double the amount comes out or half” when he was having sex, to uproarious laughter in the studio. “There’s always one, and it’s always Deb,” said Mahon. “She says what everyone else is thinking,” added Bland. Deborah came to another early episode wearing “a poo emoji outfit designed for a six-year-old”, bought while she was delirious after an operation, to promote bowel cancer awareness month. A few weeks later, she was dancing in it on her Instagram account, to the sound of Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy. She wore it often thereafter.
I experienced Deborah’s energy first-hand in the 5 Live recording studio in Salford in 2018, while interviewing her, Bland and Mahon for the Observer. Her curiosity and commitment to finding solutions to living with cancer, as well as surviving it, were remarkable. She talked that day about advances in surgical techniques such as ablation, which surgeons had used to remove seven tumors in her lung after her cancer had spread, and about visiting cancer research laboratories at Imperial College London, praising the “incredibly passionate people” she met there. She also talked to her oncologist during the same recording, who applauded her “tremendous strength of mind”, bringing her to tears.
In later years, Deborah recorded episodes in medical settings around her many treatments and operations. A February 2022 episode was structured around voice notes recorded in the Royal Marsden hospital after a spell in critical care, following a collapse at home that left her near death. She warned listeners about the harrowing details with care. Although she was brutally honest about how stretched NHS resources were, her approach was nevertheless sensitive, helpful and warm. The episode was put together, she said, “in the hope that I can give others hope”.
Born in London, to Heather, a preschool gymnastics coach who has her own Instagram account as @bowelgran, and Alistair James, Deborah studied economics at the University of Exeter.
In 2005, she met Sebastien Bowen, an investment banker, whom she married three years later, and they had two children, Hugo and Eloise. The couple separated in 2014, living in different homes, but reconciled in 2016 after counseling sessions during divorce proceedings brought them back together. Deborah received her cancer diagnosis a month later. “You might find, like I did, that cancer is the wake-up call to realizing you have a pretty good thing going on,” she wrote in her Sun column.
Deborah began that column in June 2017, five months after starting her @bowelbabe blog and Instagram account. Before her cancer diagnosis, she worked as a deputy headteacher at the Salesian school, Chertsey, then at the Matthew Arnold school in Staines, and led national research into growth mindsets in schools, work that informed her 2018 book, F*** You Cancer : How to Face the Big C, Live Your Life and Still Be Yourself. The following year she was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of East Anglia and the Royal Marsden School.
Between cancer treatments, she also ran charity marathons, organized charity balls, and took part in numerous fundraising challenges. She continued actively campaigning throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and made a podcast with her children, The Good Stuff, between May and August 2020, promoting positive thinking and ways to find happiness. In April 2021, she launched the annual #NoButts bowel cancer awareness campaign on Lorraine Kelly’s ITV show, Lorraine, which ran again in April 2022.
As her health declined, she spent time with her family and worked on her final book, How to Live When You Could Be Dead, due to be published in August.
In her last You, Me and the Big C podcast, with the show’s producer, Mike Holt, broadcast on 10 May, Deborah talked about how the lack of community care meant that she was deprived of three of her final weeks at home, but also about how the podcast had given its purpose and strength. Her final words to her devoted audience spoke volumes about her approach and her concern: “Check your poo.” After finally getting hospice care, she spent her last days at her parents’ home in Surrey, to make sure her family home in London could continue to be a happy place for her children.
Deborah’s final wish was for a fund in her name to raise money for projects close to her heart, including clinical trials, personalized medicine and awareness campaigns, with links to charities including Cancer Research UK, Bowel Cancer UK and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. “Before I die, the one thing I knew I wanted to do was set up a fund that can continue working on things that gave me life,” she said. She hoped the Bowelbabe Fund, set up on 9 May, would raise £250,000. It has raised more than £6m.
On 12 May, she was made a lady; the Duke of Cambridge visited her at her parents’ home the next day to present the award in person. She did further charity linkups with a supermarket, a fashion company and a floral company, all to raise money for the Bowelbabe Fund. She also attended Glyndebourne, about which she posted on Instagram. “Be under no illusion! I’m knackered!” she wrote. “But then the feeling of making it to something you didn’t think possible … well, it’s worth it. It’s a kind of cheeky ‘still living while dying’ two fingers up to it all.”
Sebastien, her children and her parents survive her.