Dame Deborah James, campaigner and podcast host, dies of bowel cancer aged 40

·Breaking News Editor, Yahoo News UK
·10-min read

Watch: Dame Deborah James dies at the age of 40

Podcast host and campaigner Dame Deborah James has died aged 40 after being diagnosed with bowel cancer in December 2016.

Widely known as 'Bowel Babe' through her campaigning work, Dame Deborah's family said in a statement that she had died peacefully on Tuesday surrounded by loved ones.

They described her as the "most amazing wife, daughter, sister, mummy", adding: "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.

"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.’”

You, Me and The Big C' presenter Dame Deborah James has died. (Instagram/Deborah James)
You, Me and The Big C presenter Dame Deborah James has died. (Instagram/Bowelbabe)
Dame Deborah pictured with Prince William in May; the Instagram post announcing her death. (PA)
Dame Deborah pictured with Prince William in May, left, and the Instagram post announcing her death, right. (PA and Instagram/Bowelbabe)

Dame Deborah's brave battle against the condition moved the nation.

The You, Me, And The Big C presenter was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016. Rather than retreat from the spotlight, Dame Deborah shared her journey to show the realities of living with the disease.

Read more: What is bowel cancer? Signs and and symptoms to be aware of

On 10 May, she told her social media followers she had moved to hospice-at-home care to treat her terminal bowel cancer and that she did not know "how long I've got left".

She said that while the last six months had been “heartbreaking” to go through, she had been surrounded by “so much love” and had “no regrets”.

In the following days, her announcement sparked a remarkable reaction and within four days she had raised millions on her JustGiving page.

Radio 5 Live paid tribute to Dame Deborah.
Radio 5 Live paid tribute to its colleague Dame Deborah James. (Twitter/bbc5live)

Her second book, How To Live When You Could Be Dead, is set to be become a bestseller when it's released in August.

Deborah was made a dame on 12 May with Boris Johnson hailing her "honesty, warmth and courage".

The following day, she was presented with the honour in person by Prince William, who spent time with her family.

Warm tributes were led by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who tweeted: "We are so sad to hear the heartbreaking news about Dame Deborah. Our thoughts are with her children, her family and her loved ones.

"Deborah was an inspirational and unfalteringly brave woman whose legacy will live on. W & C."

Read more: Duke and Duchess of Cambridge call Dame Deborah James 'inspirational and unfalteringly brave'

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge tweeted their tribute to Dame Deborah. (Twitter)
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge tweeted their tribute to Dame Deborah James. (Twitter/Kensington Royal)

A social media post from BBC Radio 5, which hosted her podcast said described her as "our friend and colleague".

It added: "She created an incredible legacy: breaking the poo taboo and raising awareness of bowel cancer.

We are heartbroken, and our condolences are with her family."

BBC presenter Rachel Burden, who interviewed Dame Deborah, said she "taught us how to live and die".

Dame Deborah pictured with husband Seb. (bowelbabe)
Dame Deborah pictured with husband Sebastian Bowen. (Instagram/Bowelbabe)

"What struck me most was how she always lived her best life, whether that was dancing at home with her kids, or cracking jokes from a hospital bed — always smiling, always beautiful, always truthful," Burden said.

"She has taught us how to live and how to die, never giving up on the joy she found in the love for her friends and family. She was immense."

Genevieve Edwards, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, of which Dame Deborah James was a patron, said the podcaster had turned her diagnosis into “an incredible force for good”.

After her death, Johnson said he was "terribly saddened".

He tweeted: “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.”

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner described her as "an incredible, fierce, bright and brilliant woman".

Good Morning Britain host Charlotte Hawkins described Dame Deborah James as an “inspiration”.

ASCOT, ENGLAND - JUNE 15: Dame Deborah James and her brother Benjamin James attend Royal Ascot 2022 at Ascot Racecourse on June 15, 2022 in Ascot, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Royal Ascot)
Dame Deborah James and her brother Benjamin James attend Royal Ascot on June 15. (Getty)

TV presenter Gaby Roslin paid farewell to "my beautiful friend", adding: “You will forever shine so brightly. Thank you for all you did."

Teresa Whitfield, who was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer after seeing Dame Deborah talking about symptoms on TV, told the programme that Dame Deborah saved her life.

Asked what she would say to Dame Deborah’s family, Ms Whitfield, now cancer free, said: “I think I actually have only one word which is thank-you.

“Without her, I don’t think I would be here today. Her campaigning is critical and we, as bowel cancer patients, as bowel cancer survivors, and as anybody who thinks they might have bowel cancer, we have to carry on with the legacy that she has.

“We have to carry on campaigning to raise awareness.”

Dame Deborah with Prince William as he presented her with a damehood. (Instagram/Deborah James)
Dame Deborah with Prince William as he presented her with a damehood. (Instagram/Bowelbabe)

Early career before cancer diagnosis

Dame Deborah was born in London on 1 October 1981 and, before her cancer diagnosis, worked as a deputy headteacher, specialising in computer science and use of e-learning.

She also led national research teams into growth mindsets in schools.

After being diagnosed with cancer, she turned to writing, and in addition to podcasting, Dame Deborah became a popular weekly columnist for The Sun, writing Things Cancer Made Me Say.

She also wrote the bestselling book F**k you cancer: How to face the big C, live your life and still be yourself.

Watch: Deborah James feels 'utterly loved' as donations hit £2million

Family life

Dame Deborah was married to Sebastian Bowen, and the couple have two children – Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12.

Speaking in early May, she said she chose to die at her parents' home so their children's home wasn't left with "medical equipment scars" in their memories.

"I have a really loving family who I adore and couldn’t… they’re just incredible," she previously said.

"And all I knew I wanted was to come here and be able to relax, knowing that everything was okay.

"We’ve had some really, really hard conversations in the last week. You think, gosh, how can anybody have those conversations and then you just find yourself in the middle of them.

Read more: Deborah James - How to prepare children for a loved one's death

"I know, because I trust my husband – he’s just the most wonderful man and so is my family and I know that my kids are going to be more than looked after and surrounded by love," she added.

"You always want to know as a mother, are your kids going to be okay?

"And my kids are going to be fine, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss every chance that I could have had with them."

Deborah James, Steve Bland and Lauren Mahon attending the British Podcast Awards, at King's Place in London. Picture date: Saturday May 18, 2019. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/Empics
Dame Deborah James, Steve Bland and Lauren Mahon attending the British Podcast Awards. (Getty)
Deborah was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016, at the age of 35, after experiencing weight loss and blood when she used the toilet. (Instagram/ Deborah James)
Dame Deborah James was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016, at the age of 35, after experiencing weight loss and blood when she used the toilet. (Instagram/Bowelbabe)

Cancer diagnosis

She was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in 2016, at the age of 35, after experiencing weight loss and blood in her faeces.

Despite visiting her GP three times over six months, she was told it was likely to be irritable bowel syndrome, haemorrhoids or colitis.

When she went for a private colonoscopy, a tumour was discovered.

An article she wrote for Bowel Cancer UK described the moment she knew she had cancer: "I was blind-sided at 7pm on Thursday 15 December 2016, when having refused the sedative and having researched what cancerous tumours would appear like in a colonoscopy (total hypochondriac geek alert!), I stared my ugly 5.5cm cancerous, ulcerated stage 3 tumour in the face and everything went silent."

Rachel Adedeji (left), Deborah James, Steve Bland (second right) and Ray Quinn (right) with the award for Best Podcast for the show You, Me and the Big C at the TRIC Awards 2019 50th Birthday Celebration held at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London.
Rachel Adedeji, Dame Deborah, Steve Bland and Ray Quinn with the award for Best Podcast for the show You, Me and the Big C. (Getty)

Symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • Persistent change in bowel habit – pooing more often, with looser, runnier poos and sometimes

  • Blood in the faeces without other symptoms of haemorrhoids

  • Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating – sometimes resulting in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and weight loss

Launch of Me and the Big C podcast

Dame Deborah co-hosted the podcast with Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland, which they launched in 2018.

The trio, who were all former or current cancer patients, candidly discussed life with, treatment of and other topics relating to cancer.

Bland died in September that year at the age of 40, two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

The podcast has received a number of awards, including being named the Podcast of the Year at the TRIC (Television and Radio Industries Club) awards.

Deborah James pictured with husband Sebastian. (Instagram)
Dame Deborah James pictured with husband Sebastian Bowen. (Instagram/Bowelbabe)

When asked what it meant to her, Dame Deborah said it had given purpose back to her life after being diagnosed, and made her realise what power she could have through "saving another life or making someone not feel alone".

She added: "Yes I would give my cancer up in a second just to have a normal life again. But to be able to do it and feel like you've had an impact is kind of one of the best feelings you can have."

In her final podcast, Dame Deborah thanked listeners for their support over the years,

Signing off, she said: "Please, please just enjoy life because it's so precious. All I want right now is more time and more life."

Dame Deborah enjoyed making the most of a sunny day. (Bowelbabe)
Dame Deborah enjoyed making the most of a sunny day. (Instagram/Bowelbabe)

Fundraising

Dame Deborah launched a fundraising effort for Cancer Research UK, which has reached well over £6m.

With the money, Dame Deborah said she hopes to fund clinical trials and research into personalised medicine that could result in new treatments for cancer patients, including projects in collaboration with partners such as The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and The Royal Marsden.

Launching the fundraiser, she said: "So, I suppose this is the message I never wanted to get to! But it's written with a vision that I'm truly determined to deliver.

"We have tried everything, but my body simply isn't playing ball. Even with all the innovative cancer drugs in the world or some magic new breakthrough, I realise that my rollercoaster of a ride is coming to an end very soon.

Watch: Deborah James had a ‘special gift’ to connect with the public, says charity boss

"Your support in establishing the Bowelbabe Fund, continuing to spread the word, and smashing those poo taboos will forever be cherished!"

In one of her final achievements, her call out for more big brand names to display bowel cancer symptoms on loo roll packaging was met by Andrex.