Dame Deborah James campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of bowel cancer symptoms as she battled the disease herself, and in the process saved the lives of countless others who sought an early diagnosis.
Cancer survivors from across the UK have thanked Dame Deborah for her selfless work, telling how they went to the GP after hearing her story during her regular TV appearances and episodes of her BBC podcast You, Me and the Big C.
‘Without her campaigning I wouldn’t have kept going back to me GP,’ survivor Teresa Whitfield said today. ‘She triggered something in me. And I’m now cancer free. She did save my life. I can only say thank you. Without her I don’t think I would be here today.’
BBC Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts, who this week announced she had been given the all-clear after receiving treatment for bowel cancer, was also helped by Dame Deborah’s efforts.
Saving lives: Dame Deborah James campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of bowel cancer symptoms as she battled the disease herself, and in the process saved the lives of countless others who sought an early diagnosis. The cancer campaigner has died at the age of 40
‘I truly believe what Deborah and others like her have done to get the message out – that bowel cancer can happen to anyone, at any age – was a huge factor in Adele’s symptoms being taken seriously and getting her seen for a colonoscopy as quickly as she was,’ her girlfriend Kate Holderness said.
Dame Deborah’s death was announced on Instagram last night in a post that revealed that she was surrounded by her family after months of end of life care at her parents’ house in Surrey.
In a poignant message to her 1million followers, it said that Dame Deborah’s final message to them was: ‘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’.
The campaigner’s Bowelbabe fund surged past £6.8million in the hours after it was revealed the mother-of-two had passed away.
She is survived by her two children Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, and her husband Sebastien.
Here, a look at just some of the lives Dame Deborah impacted…
I THOUGHT ‘IF SHE CAN HAVE CANCER THEN SO CAN I’
Bowel cancer survivor Margaret Murtagh, 41, from London, told how listening to Dame Deborah James’ podcast saved her life after realising she was suffering from similar symptoms, which she had initially dismissed because she was a busy, active single mother-of-two.
‘If she can have cancer, so can I’: Bowel cancer survivor Margaret Murtagh, 41, from London, told how listening to Dame Deborah James’ podcast saved her life after realising she was suffering from similar symptoms, which she had initially dismissed
Full of energy: Margaret told GB News how Deborah had been selfless and full of energy, even as she fought her own battle with the disease. Pictured, the women at a charity event
Margaret Murtagh, 41 from London started experiencing a change in bowel habit and fatigue, she put it down to her diet and being a single mother-of-two.
It was around the time of the death of BBC presenter Rachael Bland, Deborah’s podcast co-host, who lost her battle with breast cancer in September 2018.
Margaret recalled how she kept seeing Deborah on TV and online as news outlets covered Rachael Bland’s death.
Did YOU seek treatment thanks to Dame Deborah’s tireless work?
Please email [email protected] if you would like to share your story.
It was only when she followed Deborah’s ‘Bowelbabe’ Instagram account and listened to the You, Me and the Big C podcast that she realised she was experiencing what could be the symptoms of bowel cancer.
‘It struck me really, really, really clearly. We were both of a similar age, with both had two kids, both lived in London, we were both runners, we were both healthy, we didn’t look like we could have cancer,’ she told GB News today.
‘I heard her story and I thought, “oh my gosh, if she can have cancer, then so can I”. That’s when I started taking my symptoms really seriously and I rang my GP the next day…
‘I was 38 when I was diagnosed, Deborah was 35. She made you think, “goodness, don’t just rest on your laurels and think I’m a runner, I eat loads of veg, I don’t eat processed meat.”
‘Don’t just assume that you’re healthy, that you can’t get bowel cancer because you can. It happened to her and it happened to me.’
Margaret was diagnosed with stage 2 bowel cancer in January 2019. She underwent a colonoscopy and was later given the all-clear.
MY SYMPTOMS WERE TAKEN SERIOUSLY
Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts, 43, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2021. On Monday, she revealed she has been given the all-clear.
Survivor: Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts, 43, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2021. On Monday, she revealed she has been given the all-clear
Grateful: The DJ’s girlfriend Kate Holderness (pictured together) has spoken of how Dame Deborah’s tireless campaigning and fundraising efforts helped raise awareness of the disease to the point where Adele’s symptoms were ‘taken seriously’
Adele Roberts underwent colostomy surgery to remove a bowel tumor after being diagnosed with cancer.
Like Dame Deborah, Adele Roberts has offered a deeply personal look at her bowel cancer battle via social media.
Following the news of the campaigner’s death, Roberts shared a simple post that read: ‘Thank you for everything Deborah.
‘Thank you for being so strong for so long and helping others when you were in so much pain yourself.
‘You are the best of us. Thinking of your family and friends and I am forever grateful to you for helping me and my family.’
It came hours after she was given the all-clear from the disease.
The DJ’s girlfriend Kate Holderness has spoken of how Dame Deborah’s tireless campaigning and fundraising efforts helped raise awareness of the disease to the point where Adele’s symptoms were ‘taken seriously’.
‘I truly believe what Deborah and others like her have done to get the message out – that bowel cancer can happen to anyone, at any age – was a huge factor in Adele’s symptoms being taken seriously and getting her seen for a colonoscopy as quickly as she was,’ Kate wrote on Instagram.
‘Thank you for everything you’ve done Deborah, and for what your legacy will continue to do.’
I WAS CLEANING THE KITCHEN AND STOPPED IN MY TRACKS
Mother-of-four Tracey O’Keefe, of Glasgow, was diagnosed with anal cancer after watching Dame Deborah James on ITV’s Lorraine in April 2018. She recognised she was suffering from similar symptoms and insisted she was referred to a specialist.
Stopped in her tracks: Mother-of-four Tracey O’Keefe, of Glasgow, was diagnosed with anal cancer after watching Dame Deborah James on ITV’s Lorraine in April 2018. She recognised she was suffering from similar symptoms and insisted she was referred to a specialist
Life saving: Tracey appeared alongside Deborah in a December 2018 episode of Lorraine
‘I was just cleaning up the kitchen and I heard her talking about her symptoms,’ Tracey told Lorraine in a December 2018 appearance.
“I looked at her and thought she didn’t look like somebody who would have cancer. And that really hit home because I thought, “I have all those symptoms too”.
BOWEL CANCER: THE SYMPTOMS YOU SHOULDN’T IGNORE
Bowel, or colorectal, cancer affects the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum.
Such tumours usually develop from pre-cancerous growths, called polyps.
- Bleeding from the bottom
- Blood in stools
- A change in bowel habits lasting at least three weeks
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme, unexplained tiredness
- Abdominal pain
Most cases have no clear cause, however, people are more at risk if they:
- Are over 50
- Have a family history of the condition
- Have a personal history of polyps in their bowel
- Suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease
- Lead an unhealthy lifestyle
Treatment usually involves surgery, and chemo- and radiotherapy.
More than nine out of 10 people with stage one bowel cancer survive five years or more after their diagnosis.
This drops significantly if it is diagnosed in later stages.
According to Bowel Cancer UK figures, more than 41,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK.
It affects around 40 per 100,000 adults per year in the US, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Tracey had previously sought treatment for her symptoms but returned to the GP after watching the Lorraine segment and insisted on being referred to a specialist.
When she was met with delays on securing an appointment, Tracey took matters into her own hands and paid to see a doctor privately.
She was diagnosed with a 4cm tumour. At the time of the interview, Tracey had received treatment and had a positive prognosis.
Tracey admitted she had been embarrassed to seek help because her symptoms affected her bowels.
‘I was embarrassed and I apologised every time I went to the GP. I went in saying, “sorry, it’s me again, I’ve still got this. I’ve still got a wee bit of blood, I’m still pooing really strangely”.
‘It was a change in bowel habits, different shape, frequency, everything – all the classic symptoms.
‘I had the weight loss as well. Like Deborah, I did think it’s because I’m doing more yoga and I’m watching what I eat. But I had a gut feeling.’
‘DEBORAH, WITHOUT YOU I WOULD BE DEAD’
Marketing consultant Teresa Whitfield, 41, lives in south London with her husband and teenage daughter. She wrote an emotional open letter to Dame Deborah, published by OK!
‘I remember having an upset stomach and blood in my poo on holiday in July 2018 and thinking, my body’s trying to tell me something. I put it down to dodgy food,’ she wrote.
‘But my poo didn’t look normal – more like undigested tomatoes – and I developed a pain on the left side of my abdomen. I didn’t know what the symptoms of bowel cancer were. It didn’t even register with me.
‘That October, I saw you raising awareness on the Lorraine show and the penny dropped like a stone. You spoke about bowel cancer so openly and a feeling of impending doom washed over me.’
Teresa was eventually diagnosed with stage 2 bowel cancer after seeking private treatment after her NHS GP failed to take her symptoms seriously.
She underwent an operation to remove a tumour and received chemotherapy. Now the proud mother-of-one is planning her retirement with her husband and looking forward to seeing her daughter grow up.
‘Dame Deborah, without you I promise I’d be dead,’ she added.
SHE INSPIRED US TO LIVE LIFE TO THE FULL
Bowel cancer survivor Dr Anisha Patel, of Surrey, was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in September 2018, aged 39. She credits Dame Deborah with transforming the cancer community and showing everyone how to ‘live life to the full’.
Shining light: Bowel cancer survivor Dr Anisha Patel, of Surrey, was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in September 2018, aged 39. She credits Dame Deborah with transforming the cancer community and showing everyone how to ‘live life to the full’
‘She stops us from feeling alone, we feel seen because of her,’ she told i. ‘She has showed us there is life for those of us living with cancer and she has changed the terminology around it.
‘Just because you have stage four cancer doesn’t mean you are terminal, it means you are living with cancer.
‘She inspires all of us to live life to the full and not take anything for granted.’
Dr Patel, a mother-of-two, said she thought she was suffering from new-onset IBS symptoms, including tiredness, some urgency in needing to go to the toilet and fresh blood on the toilet paper.
‘I finally spoke to my husband [a consultant Gastroenterologist] about my symptoms as I felt that things weren’t settling. I knew something just wasn’t right, and he suggested I should get checked by a GP,’ she wrote in a Bowel Cancer UK post.
Eventually Dr Patel was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer. Since being given the all-clear, the GP has dedicated herself to raising awareness of the disease and frequently appears on ITV’s Lorraine to promote the NoButts campaign.
She paid tribute to Dame Deborah yesterday: ‘You will never know the impact you had upon the millions of lives you touched in so many ways. And the legacy you leave will continue to do so.
‘You have been the beacon for Bowel cancer amongst so many other things. And a pillar for our cancer community.’
‘A truly special person who saved lives and did so much to help others’: Friends and colleagues pay tribute to Dame Deborah James
Tributes have poured into Dame Deborah James after her family confirmed she has died aged 40 following a long battle with bowel cancer.
Messages commended the mother-of-two for her inspiring fundraising, her ‘tireless’ campaigning and her incredible legacy.
The podcaster and campaigner revealed in early May that she had stopped active treatment and was receiving end-of-life care at her parents’ home in Woking, with her husband Sebastien and their two children on hand.
In her final weeks, the presenter of the BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C raised millions of pounds for research and was made a dame for her ‘tireless’ work improving awareness of the disease.
Her mother Heather said her heart is ‘broken’ following the death of her daughter aged 40 from bowel cancer.
BBC podcast host Deborah James has passed away following her five-year battle with cancer
Heather James, whose handle on the social media site is Bowelgran, shared a series of photos of Dame Deborah and wrote: ‘My heart is broken. Love you forever.’
Fans, politicians and celebrities also rushed to pay their respects to the inspirational campaigner.
Minister of State Michelle Donelan tweeted: ‘RIP Deborah James – a selfless inspiration. Thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends.’
First Dates personality Fred Sirieix tweeted: ‘Deborah James passed away. Poor thing. RIP’
Meanwhile, Piers Morgan tweeted: ‘RIP Dame Deborah James, aka Bowel Babe. A truly remarkable and inspiring woman. Such sad news.’
Good Morning Britain host Charlotte Hawkins described Dame Deborah James as an ‘inspiration.’
She tweeted: ‘Oh no…heartbreaking news that @bowelbabe has left us. What an inspiration, a truly special person who saved lives & did so much to help others.
‘Who showed that even a terminal diagnosis wasn’t going to stop her living life to the full. So much love to her family & friends.’
Carol Vorderman also paid tribute to Dame Deborah James, tweeting: ‘Rest in peace @Bowelbabe. Your incredible spirit will live on.’
BBC radio presenter Chris Stark tweeted that Dame Deborah had been an inspiration for many.
‘Dame Deborah James,’ he tweeted.
‘You inspired so many and did everything to the fullest. No one can do more than that. I hope we can have a gin wherever this all leads.
‘Thinking of your family and friends and everyone that is going through similar. Rest in Peace Debs x’
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner described Dame Deborah as an ‘extraordinary campaigner’.
She tweeted: ‘Rest in peace Deborah James. What an incredible, fierce, bright and brilliant woman.
‘An absolutely extraordinary campaigner. Thank you for your rebellious hope and the millions you have inspired @bowelbabe.
‘Thinking of your many loved ones’.
TV presenter Julia Bradbury said Dame Deborah was ‘the most incredible ambassador of life’.
She tweeted: ‘Heartbroken that Dame Deborah James has died.
‘She has been the most incredible ambassador of life & cancer campaigner.
‘My thoughts are with her family & children. Such a huge loss. Your bright light will shine on Deborah.’
TV presenter Gaby Roslin tweeted: ‘Bye bye my beautiful friend Deborah.
‘You will forever shine so brightly. Thank you for all you did. For the laughter, the dancing and most importantly for all you did in your short lifetime for others.
‘My love to all of the family. Just so heartbreaking’.
Genevieve Edwards, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, where Dame Deborah James was a patron, said the podcaster had turned her diagnosis into ‘an incredible force for good’.
She said: ‘We’re deeply saddened that our patron Dame Deborah James has died, and our hearts go out to her family and everyone who knew and loved her. Deborah’s star shone bright; she was a true inspiration.
‘She turned her bowel cancer diagnosis into an incredible force for good and through her tireless campaigning to raise awareness of bowel cancer symptoms, will have saved countless lives.
‘Deborah brought warmth, energy, and honesty to everything she did. Even during her most difficult times living with bowel cancer, she never stopped helping others.
‘We are truly grateful to have known Deborah and to call her our friend. She was a powerful patron for Bowel Cancer UK, and leaves a stunning legacy through her BowelBabe Fund, a testament to the love and admiration so many had for her.’
Dame Deborah’s lasting legacy: How Bowelbabe urged listeners ‘take risks, love deeply, have no regrets…and check your poo’ in moving final podcast message
BY MARTIN ROBINSON, CHIEF REPORTER FOR MAILONLINE
Britain is grieving Dame Deborah James today as she used her final message to the world to urge people to ‘take risks, love deeply – and check your poo – it could save your life’ and her bereft family posted a video of her dancing in the sunset following her death aged just 40.
The campaigner’s Bowelbabe fund surged past £6.8million in the hours after it was revealed the mother-of-two had passed away as people described how her tireless campaigning while she battled terminal cancer herself had saved their lives.
She is survived by her two children Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, and her husband Sebastien, and came to public prominence when she co-hosted the You, Me And The Big C podcast with Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland. BBC newsreader Ms Bland died in September 2018, also aged 40, from breast cancer.
Dame Deborah’s death was announced on Instagram last night in a post that revealed that she was surrounded by her family after months of end of life care at her parents’ house in Surrey. In a poignant message to her 1million followers, it said that Dame Deborah’s final message to them was: ‘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’.
In recent weeks, she was made a dame by the Duke of Cambridge at her family home, with William praising her for ‘going above and beyond to make a very special memory’
‘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,” the post read
The campaigner’s Bowelbabe fund surged past £6.8million in the hours after it was revealed the mother-of-two had passed away
Deborah (pictured with her children), parent to Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, with her husband Sebastien, was constantly labelled ‘inspirational’ by fans after candidly sharing her struggles on social media, as well as on Radio 5 Live’s You, Me and the Big C, of which she was one of three presenters
Deborah and her husband Sebastien Bowen in April 2019
Dame Deborah James dead at 40: Poignant announcement from her family in full
The death of podcast host and mother-of-two Deborah James at the age of 40 was announced by her family on Instagram
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
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.” x
The message was accompanied by the always glamourous teacher turned broadcaster dancing on a balcony on holiday as the sun set behind her, as friends described her as a ‘warrior’ who ‘taught us how to live and taught us how to die’.
Today there were tributes from all over the world including Boris Johnson, who said: ‘What an inspiration she was to so many. The awareness she brought to bowel cancer and the research her campaigning has funded will be her enduring legacy. Because of her, many many lives will be saved.’
And cancer survivors thanked her for saving them. Teresa Whitfield was watching breakfast TV when she heard Dame Deborah describing her symptoms, which inspired Teresa to go to her GP immediately.
She said today: ‘Without her campaigning I wouldn’t have kept going back to me GP. She triggered something in me. And I’m now cancer free. She did save my life. I can only say thank you. Without her I don’t think I would be here today’.
Dame Deborah’s husband is yet to speak out about her death. But her mother Heather has said: ‘My heart is broken. Love you forever’.
Many shared her final podcast from last month, where she signed off in tears, saying: ‘I suppose that’s it from me. I’m pleased that I have got to the point where I can say it and we’ll see each other again, somewhere, dancing. And until then, please please enjoy life because it is so precious. All I want now is more time and more life. And check your poo. Come on. I can’t leave on any other words’.
The cancer-fighting charity set up by Dame Deborah was boosted again overnight amid a huge outpouring of support after her death was announced by her family.
Her Bowelbabe fund surged past £6.8million in the hours after it was revealed the 40-year-old mother-of-two had lost her brave battle.
Dame Deborah’s family revealed the tragic news in an Instagram post which said ‘the most amazing wife, daughter, sister, mummy’ passed away peacefully surrounded by loved ones.
In her final weeks, the presenter of the BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C raised £6.75million for research and was made a dame for her ‘tireless’ work improving awareness of the disease.
In recent weeks, Deborah made the most of her time, going for days out, which were exhausting due to her condition. However, she remained positive, and posted about how much she enjoyed outings, like this one to Royal Ascot
BBC podcast host Deborah James has passed away following her five-year battle with bowel cancer, her family has announced in an Instagram post, which included this above photo
Resilience: Deborah James pictured with her mother Heather James two months ago after on of her most recent operations
Deborah (pictured, far left, with Lauren Mahon and, right, with her brother and his fiancée) was made a dame by the Duke of Cambridge at her family home, with William praising her for ‘going above and beyond to make a very special memory’
How Dame Deborah transformed bowel cancer awareness
- In December 2016, the West London mother-of-two, a deputy head, was diagnosed ‘late’ with incurable bowel cancer
- After sharing her experiences on living with the disease on social media, Deborah became known as the ‘Bowel Babe’
- In 2018, she became one of three presenters on Radio 5 Live’s You, Me and the Big C, which was conceived by her late co-host Rachael Bland
- On September 5 2018, Welsh journalist and presenter Bland, diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, died at the age of 40
- Deborah and her co-host Lauren Mahon continued to present the show, with Steve Bland, Rachael’s husband, joining the duo
- On social media and in her column for The Sun newspaper, Deborah documented the many chemo, radiotherapy sessions and surgery she’d had since
In 2018, Deborah (left) joined Lauren Mahon (front) and Rachael Bland (right) to present the award-winning podcast You, Me and the Big C on Radio 5 Live
- In 2019, she had a procedure known as CyberKnife, a highly targeted form of radiotherapy to attack an inoperable lymph node close to her liver
- The pandemic’s impact on cancer services saw her campaign for care to continue as normal and, earlier this year, she launched the ITV’s Lorraine’s ‘No Butts’ campaign, raising awareness on bowel cancer symptoms
- Since last year, she had been taking new experimental drugs as part of a trial after her oncology team gave her the green light to do so
- In August, Deborah revealed that scans she’d had in recent days revealed her cancer had gone in the ‘wrong direction very quickly’
- She told followers she would be taking a break on social media over the weekend to ‘snuggle’ with her family ahead of more scans
- The mother-of-two said a new ‘rapidly-growing’ tumour near her liver had wrapped itself around her bowel
- On October 1, Deborah celebrated her 40th birthday
- By October 18, the mother-of-two told her followers her chemotherapy was working
- Days later, she was rushed to A&E with ‘spiking 40 degree temperatures’
- In November, she revealed she is unable to walk for more than 20 minutes and remained ‘very weak’
- By December, Deborah said she was ‘not sure what her options were’ after her liver stent ‘stopped working’
- In January, she had five operations in 10 days after nearly dying in an acute medical emergency
- On January 25, Deborah returned home from hospital after three weeks
- On March 14, the mother-of-two was back in hospital as an in-patient after suffering from septic infection
- In April, she concerned fans with snaps after suffering ‘a rough few days’
- On April 14, the mother-of-two told fans she had been discharged from hospital but called the situation ‘very tough’
- On April 27, she told Lorraine Kelly that she had spent ’80 per cent’ of the year in hospital
- On May 9, Deborah announced she had moved to hospice care
Dame Deborah became a patron for Bowel Cancer UK following her diagnosis and worked to raise money and awareness of the charity.
Its chief executive Genevieve Edwards said her legacy would live on through her campaigning work and that she had a ‘special gift’ to connect with the public.
She said: ‘Deborah has been an incredible force for good, for our charity and others. Since the day of her diagnosis she has shone a bright light on bowel cancer.
‘She hasn’t stopped in her tireless attempts to raise awareness. She has raised thousands and thousands of pounds for the causes close to her heart and even in the most difficult days personally for her she has never stopped helping others.
‘Her star shone so bright and she will be missed by so many.’
Ms Edwards described Dame Deborah’s legacy as ‘huge’ and said she had never seen so many conversations about bowel cancer taking place. She has shone a very powerful light on it,’ she said.
‘But her warmth and her compassion, her energy and her humour, really connected with people and made something which is often difficult to talk about okay to talk about.
‘That has been her special gift – to connect with others and to have those difficult conversations. And in doing so prompt people to take action, and she has saved countless lives.’
The former deputy head teacher turned cancer campaigner, from west London, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in December 2016, and was told early on that she might not live beyond five years – a milestone that passed in the autumn of 2021.
Deborah was constantly labelled ‘inspirational’ by fans after candidly sharing her struggles on social media, as well as on Radio 5 Live’s You, Me and the Big C, of which she was one of three presenters.
On May 9, the mother-of-two shared a heartbreaking ‘goodbye’ message to her Instagram followers, revealing she was being moved into hospice-at-home care at her parents’ house, while ‘surrounded by family’, because ‘my body simply isn’t playing ball.’
While she said at the time that no one knew how long she may live, she recently revealed she was given just days when she was released from hospital last month.
Deborah insisted she had left ‘no stone unturned’ during her search for ‘magic medicine miracle’.
She was made a dame by the Duke of Cambridge at her family home, with William praising her for ‘going above and beyond to make a very special memory’.
He later called her ‘incredible’ telling staff at the Royal Marsden who had treated her: ‘She is a brave and inspirational woman.’
Tributes flooded in for the cancer campaigner, with Deborah’s mother Heather saying her heart is ‘broken’ following the death of her daughter.
Heather James, whose handle on Instagram is Bowelgran, shared a series of photos of Dame Deborah and wrote: ‘My heart is broken. Love you forever.’
Deborah certainly made the most of the weeks she had while in hospice care, going on outings, and making memories with loved ones.
These trips included watching opera at Glyndebourne, enjoying a trip after hours to the Chelsea Flower Show and lunch at the £700-a-night Beaverbrook estate in Leatherhead, Surrey.
She also had a day out at the races, going to Royal Ascot – just 30 minutes drive from her parents’ Woking home – in mid-June, with family members including her brother Benjamin and his fiancee Ashley Hall.
Just days before she died, she told The Sun she was ‘making sure her children only see her on good days’ as she revealed she felt ‘exhausted’ amid her ongoing cancer battle.
She added she had felt a ‘deep love’ from her family, saying: ‘I think my family are knackered, they have all been incredible – going above and beyond to look after me and nurse me.’
She added: ‘I feel very strongly that I don’t want my kids to see me agitated and distressed. I want to make sure they see me when I’m having a good days.’
Saying the ‘pressure’ on her young children was ‘huge’, she continued: ‘I want them to have nice memories. I don’t want them to take on the burden of having to care for me, massage my legs because I can’t walk. That would break my heart.’
With a splash of lipstick and that smile, Dame Deborah James achieved more in a few short weeks than most do in a lifetime, writes BETH HALE
Faced with the enormity of saying goodbye, others might have floundered.
Not Deborah James. She embraced the last precious weeks of life with an extraordinary gusto; a passion for making a difference that even at her frailest bestowed on her a kind of radiance.
Dressing up in ‘nice clothes’ and ‘popping on some lippy’ helped keep her going, she said.
But what stood out in those final photographs – on trips to Ascot with her brother and Glyndebourne Opera with her husband this month, at Chelsea Flower Show last month holding a glass of champagne in front of a rose, named in her honour, or sitting next to Prince William, newly-bestowed Dame Commander medal pinned to her breast – was her smile. A megawatt grin so broad it could light up the darkest room.
And while there will be many tears today from the family to whom she was devoted and the many, many lives she touched through her passion not just for raising awareness of bowel cancer but how to live with cancer, Deborah James, otherwise known as Bowelbabe, achieved so very much to smile about.
What she chalked up in these last short weeks since announcing that she was receiving end-of-life care is more than most of us could hope to achieve in a lifetime: There’s the Damehood, of course, the rose, a book that rocketed straight to the top of the Amazon charts (before it’s even published), a clothing line, even a Lego figurine.
And that’s before you get to the £6.7 million (and counting) raised for vital cancer research through her hastily-launched, but phenomenally successful, Bowelbabe Fund.
Pictured: Dame Deborah James attends Royal Ascot on June 15 this year
Prince William, who visited Dame Deborah at her parents’ home in Woking, sitting with her in the garden in which she wanted to spend her final moments with her family and honouring her ‘tireless campaigning’ to raise awareness of bowel cancer, called her a ‘brave and inspirational woman’.
But, truthfully, there are no superlatives that really do justice to what Deborah James achieved in the time since she was diagnosed with bowel cancer in December 2016.
Last month, as she confronted the new, palliative, stage of her own care, the 40-year-old mother-of-two poignantly insisted she wasn’t brave, writing: ‘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.’ Others would disagree. Yes, she was unfailingly honest about her fears – her determination to shield her children, Eloise, 12 and Hugo, 14, from her darkest moments; of being alone.
Yet, she was determined to grasp every minute of life with both hands – whether that be going outside to feel the rain on her face or summoning the energy to keep urging people to ‘check your poo’ or to donate to her fund.
As she said: ‘I always said I wanted to slide in sideways when my time is up, with a massive smile, no regrets and a big glass of champagne! Still my intention!!’
Her legacy is truly extraordinary. Last night donations to her fund, which will support clinical trials and research into potentially life-saving developments as well as campaigns to raise awareness, were continuing to rocket, while health bosses have seen tens of thousands of extra visits to a NHS bowel cancer resources page since Dame Deborah launched her fund on May 9.
Dame Deborah shared this image after an operation when she revealed cancer had returned
By focusing on everything Dame Deborah achieved as ‘Bowelbabe’, it’s easy to overlook the 35 years that went before.
She was a very successful deputy headteacher, helping to turn around failing schools, a mother to two young children and rebuilding her marriage to banker husband Sebastien Bowen when her world ‘shattered into tiny pieces, just days before Christmas 2016’.
She spoke and wrote about that moment, and the numerous, rollercoaster stages of the journey that followed, many times in the years that followed, first in her personal blog, then in a column she began writing for The Sun newspaper and then in the award-winning podcast You, Me & the Big C, which she hosted alongside fellow cancer sufferers Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland.
Rachael sadly died in September 2018, with her husband Steve taking her place in the trio as the podcast continued.
As for Bowelbabe, a superhero name if ever there was one, it wasn’t the creation of a slick marketing team, but rather the alter ego Dame Deborah created for herself when she started blogging after diagnosis; it projected a feeling of strength, she said.
In January 2020, she had explained that scans showed she had no evidence of cancer in her body at that point – with doctors suggesting she was ‘rewriting the textbook’ – but in April 2021, she revealed her cancer was back again
And she needed that strength; she had seen three separate GPs, been told her symptoms were probably IBS and had rounds of tests before the blow struck: Stage 3 bowel cancer, reclassified just weeks later as stage 4 when medics realised the disease had spread to the lungs.
The super-fit vegetarian who didn’t ‘really fit the profile of someone with bowel cancer’, but who had been experiencing symptoms (exhaustion, changed bowl habits, bleeding) for about six months was suddenly facing statistics telling her that her chance of living five years or longer was just 8 per cent.
As she wrote: ‘Five years became this terrifying benchmark in my head. There was nothing I could find to make the data better – and believe me, I searched for it.
‘I mourned all the milestones I would miss; my 40th birthday, seeing my kids go to secondary school, celebrating another Christmas, new decorations on the tree.’ And then those very milestones kept on passing and, in December, the biggest of them – five years – also passed.
There were highs and lows which she shared with her followers (on Instagram they have grown from 495,000 to more than one million in the last weeks alone). She didn’t hide the brutal treatment regime that included countless cycles of chemo, numerous operations (17 tumours removed), new treatments that were emerging only as her own journey with cancer progressed.
She wasn’t embarrassed about poo. ‘Check your poo’ was practically her mantra.
Nor did she shy away from any opportunity to throw her arms around life: She appeared on breakfast TV in her bra and knickers, she danced with her children, she ran, she holidayed in the sunshine, she put on her lippy and she determined that whatever was going on in her life, she could make a difference.
Through it all her family were both her driving force and her biggest support team. Covid brought the most unexpected of silver linings in that it thrust them together in a uniquely special way – not that she cosseted her children, instead she wanted them to learn to bake, plant bulbs, watch butterflies, things they could ‘remember doing with me’.
And how she needed the support of her family, these last five months in particular. In January, the five-year milestone reached, she found herself in intensive care, being resuscitated as a result of huge pressure around her liver from the cancer. ‘By some miracle,’ she said, she got through it, but it was gruelling, far more time spent in a hospital bed than in her own. She kept getting sepsis.
In the end, as she told The Times in a tearful but uplifting interview, treatment was ‘fruitless’. ‘My body can’t tolerate anything.
‘As devastating as it is, there is almost a sense of release in knowing there is nothing more I can do. My cancer is now just taking over my body’.
It was to her parents’ home in Woking that she gravitated for the last stage – for one thing, her own home in Barnes was a townhouse with stairs she could no longer tackle, but more importantly it meant she could try to avoid her own precious children forever remembering her passing in the context of their family home. Her biggest fear was leaving her children, of not seeing the moments parents look forward to.
Together with husband Seb she made a pact to be honest with them, but to do all in her power to shield them from the darkest moments. ‘I want them to have nice memories,’ she said. And they will. Many of them, along with the letters, memory boxes and gifts Dame Deborah busily curated in her last days.
Dame Deborah raised more than £6.7 million for research through her BowelBabe fund
This last task is yet further testament to Dame Deborah’s ferocious drive to live her last weeks to their fullest. She called it ‘death admin’, which makes it sound like she was squaring away paperwork when in fact her ‘admin’ was a to-do list of love – the curation of memories, the funeral planning (sombre black and white ‘because people look good in black and white’, tequila, cremation), setting up the fund and so on.
She admitted one of the most overwhelming of sensations was the tiredness that enfolded her, but she wanted to complete one last episode of You, Me & the Big C. And she did.
She wanted to complete her second book (the first, F*** Cancer: How to Face the Big C, Live Your Life and Still Be Yourself, raised a considerable sum for charity). She did, and How to Live When You Could Be Dead (as she said, ‘oh the irony of the title!’) is in its final edits ready for publication in August. All royalties and £3 per book sold in the UK will go to the Bowelbabe Fund.
There were also conversations to have, not least with husband Seb. The pre-cancer period when their marriage nearly floundered, then the times when, like all partners in life, they bickered about the little things, were all firmly in the past as the ever-present clock in Dame Deborah’s mind ticked away.
He ‘dropped everything’ she said, to be there for his wife 24/7. In one of her last newspaper interviews she admitted that she had given him ‘strict instructions’. ‘I want him to move on,’ she said. ‘He’s a handsome man, I’m, like, ‘Don’t be taken for a ride, don’t marry a bimbo, find someone else who can make you laugh like we did [together]’.’
He whisked his wife to RHS Wisley, at the crack of dawn, to celebrate the launch of her book. She posted a picture of the pair of them on Instagram, the wording particularly heartfelt.
‘I love this picture of reminding me of vibrant green life all around, despite the sadness of knowing the state of my body inside,’ she said. ‘But Seb is an utter rock for me and together we seem to be able to squeeze our hands, swallow the tears and laugh instead.’
He was with her too when Prince William dropped in to bestow a Damehood. Normally these things are announced twice a year at either the New Year Honours or the Queen’s Birthday Honours – but special circumstances decreed all stops should be pulled.
‘I am utterly honoured that he joined us for afternoon tea and champagne, where he not only spent a generous amount of time talking to my whole family but also honoured me with my Damehood. It’s quite surreal having a royal pop in at home, and yes you can imagine the cleaning antics and preparation went off the scale,’ she later told her followers.
Seb, who quietly left his wife’s own very special light to shine, said of the visit: ‘It has brought a piercing ray of light and hope into this, the darkest of times.’ It will doubtless be a memory Dame Deborah’s family will cherish for many years to come.
But for Deborah there were other moments to delight in too: The launch of her clothing range for one, which includes the dress she wore to meet Prince William and a T-shirt bearing the slogan she made her own, ‘Rebellious Hope’ – a mantra expressing her philosophy and a message of positivity for everyone else.
Sipping champagne – hospice staff had to remind her that having opted for palliative care ‘you can drink what you like’ – and wearing a flouncy floral dress during sunny days with her family around her had something defiantly Bowelbabe about it.
‘I cannot tell you guys how this partnership has kept me going through my hospital stays and taken me away from cancer,’ she said of the clothing launch.
‘For years, I always talked about ‘dressing up to make you feel better’and over recent months all the ups and downs, being in and out of hospital, dressing up in nice clothes and popping on some lippy has made a difference to my journey.’
If a splash of lipstick made a difference to Dame Deborah’s day, how much of a difference did she make to the lives of others grappling with adversity? The stream of letters that found its way to her parents’ home – addressed to ‘Dame Debs, staying with her parents somewhere in Woking’ and the like – suggest it’s something no fund can quantify.
For someone who once said she felt as if she had never ‘done enough’, what she crammed in to the last five years is mind-boggling.
She appreciated it, too. In her final podcast she said: ‘I feel utterly flattered to have had these opportunities. Yes, I would give my cancer up in a second to have a normal life again. But to be able to do it and feel like you have had an impact is kind of one of the best feelings you can have.’
More than once, Deborah said she didn’t want to be a ‘sad story’. And while there will be tears at her passing, ultimately there’s so much to find uplifiting about Dame Deborah James.
As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge said: ‘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.’