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How Deborah James raised millions and spread awareness after cancer diagnosis

Dame Deborah James was a popular podcaster who bravely discussed her cancer diagnosis (Ian West/PA)
Dame Deborah James was a popular podcaster who bravely discussed her cancer diagnosis (Ian West/PA)

In her final years, Dame Deborah James used her terminal diagnosis of stage four bowel cancer to inspire the public and raise millions for charity.

The former deputy headteacher and podcaster, who has died aged 40, gained more than 900,000 followers on social media as she documented the high and lows of her treatment with a unique sense of humour and optimism.

As one of the co-hosts of the BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C, she took part in frank discussions about cancer that could be both serious and light-hearted, with conversations often punctuated by laughter.

In her final days, her campaigning earned her a damehood and her Bowel Babe fundraiser for Cancer Research UK passed the £6 million mark.

Dame Deborah was working as a deputy headteacher in December 2016, days before Christmas, when a consultant told her a colonoscopy showed she had a large tumour.

She had typical symptoms – losing weight, passing blood when going to the toilet – but put them down to being a busy working mother.

Deborah James
Dame Deborah James with Steve Bland, a co-host on the You, Me And The Big C podcast (PA)

A GP earlier said Dame Deborah may have irritable bowel syndrome and tests showed no irregularities.

She never got a follow-up appointment and was told the symptoms were stress-related, but she said a “sixth sense” told her something was badly wrong.

It was only when she paid to see a private specialist she finally got a diagnosis.

Aged just 35, Dame Deborah was told she had stage four bowel cancer and was unlikely to live to 40.

Despite her diagnosis, she remained relentlessly optimistic and began documenting her treatment on social media and in a newspaper column.

Against the odds, December 2021 marked five years since her diagnosis.

“I’m fully aware I shouldn’t be alive to write this today,” she wrote on Instagram.

“But the best advice I was given was not to think too much about the what ifs, and to take on whatever challenge I have here and now and do it all little by little – and then we might just get far!”

Dame Deborah initially co-hosted the You, Me And The Big C podcast with Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland.

Bland died in September 2018 aged 40 after treatment for breast cancer, and her widower Steve has since become a regular on the show.

In early May 2022, she shared a blog post on social media announcing she had stopped active treatment and moved to hospice-at-home care, with doctors telling her they had done all they could.

Her post prompted an outpouring of emotion online.

She returned to her parents’ home in Woking – a bungalow with a garden – where she was joined by her husband Sebastien and their young children, Hugo and Eloise.

Speaking to The Times, she explained she had set up a “to-do death list” and the first item was recording her children letters they could open when she died.

She praised her husband and revealed she had given him “strict instructions” to move on after her death.

“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’,” she said.

Dame Deborah James
Her Bowel Babe fundraiser for Cancer Research UK broke the £6 million mark (Alamy/PA)

Dame Deborah also set up a fundraiser on the JustGiving website with what she believed to be an optimistic target of £250,000. Within four days, she had raised more than 16 times that.

By the Friday after stopping treatment, more than £4 million had been donated for Cancer Research UK.

This continued to rise over the weekend to more than £6 million.

In another surprise, Number 10 announced that she was being honoured with a damehood for her “tireless campaigning”.

Dame Deborah later said she felt “honoured and shocked” to even be considered for the honour.

Unusually, her damehood was conferred by the Duke of Cambridge at the family home, where he joined them for afternoon tea and champagne.

Damehoods are usually handed out by members of the royal family – but at investiture ceremonies at royal palaces including Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

Chelsea Flower Show 2022
Dame Deborah with her husband Sebastien Bowen received a private tour at the Chelsea Flower Show (The Harkness Rose Company/PA)

She continued her campaigning by announcing she had written another book, titled How To Live When You Could Be Dead, documenting what she had learnt about how to have a positive mindset when faced with life’s biggest challenges.

Despite not being due to be published till August 2022, the book shot to number one on the Amazon list through pre-orders, with her royalties going towards her Bowelbabe Fund.

The podcast host followed this up by releasing a clothing line with In The Style, with 100% of the profits going towards the charity.

In her last days, she also attended the Chelsea Flower Show to see a blush pink rose which had been named after her.

As well as hosting her “last impromptu party” after her brother Benjamin got engaged to his long-term partner Ashley Hall.