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As Deborah James posts a poignant farewell, BETH HALE pays tribute to her fearless optimism

Those who have charted the journey of podcaster and cancer campaigner Deborah James will know she has never shied away from the jubilant highs or agonising lows of living with cancer.

The mother-of-two’s Instagram page (current number of followers: 495,000) is littered with posts cataloguing everything from her exploits dancing on a jetty in a bikini to the hospital appointments and emergency admissions that have become increasingly frequent this year.

The 40-year-old, who has two children, Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, with her husband Sebastien Bowen, has been living with stage 4 bowel cancer since her diagnosis in December 2016. 

She is perhaps best known as the Bowel Babe and for her work on the BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C.

But amid it all — the raising of awareness, the fundraising, the determination, the good-humoured honesty — there was one message she dreaded having to share. She posted it on Instagram and Twitter on Monday.

‘The message I never wanted to write. We have tried everything, but my body simply isn’t playing ball. 

BBC podcast host Deborah James, who has incurable bowel cancer, poses from her hospital bed

Mrs James pictured with her husband and two children, Hugo, centre left, and Eloise, centre right

Mrs James pictured with her husband and two children, Hugo, centre left, and Eloise, centre right

BBC Radio 5 live presenter Rachael Bland and bloggers Lauren (Girl Vs Cancer) Mahon and Mrs James present the podcast You, Me and the Big C

BBC Radio 5 live presenter Rachael Bland and bloggers Lauren (Girl Vs Cancer) Mahon and Mrs James present the podcast You, Me and the Big C

‘My active care has stopped and I am now moved to hospice at home care, with my incredible family all around me and the focus is on making sure I’m not in pain and spending time with them.

‘Nobody knows how long I’ve got left but I’m not able to walk, I’m sleeping most of the days, and most things I took for granted are pipe dreams. 

‘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 any more.’

Quite how she found the words is indicative of Deborah’s approach to life with an incurable cancer diagnosis.

The odds of living beyond five years were stacked against her from the very start, but she passed that marker last year. 

‘I’m fully aware I shouldn’t be alive to write this today, celebrating a milestone reached,’ she posted on social media.

Since then, hospital gowns and slipper socks worn jauntily over compression stockings have featured on her blog a little more heavily than she would have liked.

Earlier this year, she shared a deeply moving post from her hospital bed in which she revealed she had undergone a series of operations following an ‘acute medical emergency’.

Deborah has often paid thanks to the medical professionals caring for her, as well as to her own family and friends. 

She’s also given credit to her body — a body that has not only given her two children who are ‘the most precious thing in my life’, but ‘fought tirelessly to keep me alive’.

And it is surely her remarkable ability to turn her thoughts to others that shines out of her most recent announcement.

For even as she grappled with the idea of ending active care, Deborah was thinking about what else she could do to help others — namely setting up the Bowelbabe fund to raise money for further ‘life-saving research into cancer’ and, as she put it, to ‘give more Deborahs more time’.

Within 12 hours of Deborah sharing the post, the fund broke the £1 million mark. Last night it reached £1.9 million.

‘I never in my wildest dreams thought we’d be waking up to this total 12 hours later. I’m actually crying!’ she wrote.

Mrs James choked back tears today as she thanked everyone who donated to her cancer fundraiser that raised a staggering £2 million

Mrs James choked back tears today as she thanked everyone who donated to her cancer fundraiser that raised a staggering £2 million

That this new milestone should be triggered by the revelation that Deborah’s own journey has entered a different stage is heartbreaking.

‘Right now for me it’s all about taking it a day at a time, step by step and being grateful for another sunrise,’ she told her followers. 

‘My whole family are around me and we will dance through this together, sunbathing and laughing (I’ll cry!!) at every possible moment!’

She last contributed to her award-winning You, Me And The Big C podcast in March this year. She presented the series with fellow cancer sufferers Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland.

Rachael died of breast cancer in September 2018, six months after the podcast launched, and her husband, Steve, took her place in the trio.

Rachael, Deborah says, was always an inspiration. They were diagnosed at around the same time and met in an online cancer community. 

Deborah thought she would die first — but that wasn’t how it would work out.

Raising awareness of the signs of bowel cancer, as well as being positive about how to live with it, is something Deborah has long been passionate about.

She was just 35 years old when she was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer. She was a vegetarian, a runner; she wasn’t, in her words, ‘bowel cancer’s type’.

Again and again, she encouraged others not to ignore possible symptoms — exhaustion, changed bowel habits, bleeding — which the busy deputy headteacher had been experiencing for about six months.

After seeing three separate GPs, she was eventually diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer, which was changed to a stage 4 diagnosis after it was discovered the cancer had spread to her lungs.

‘To say I was blindsided is an understatement,’ she wrote last April.

The mother-of-two, who has been battling cancer for five years, said she was surrounded by her ‘incredible’ family at home (pictured with her children) 

‘I lie awake at night panicking about leaving my kids without their mum. I spend days sobbing in bed, unable even to get up. I live with this burden, but so do they.’

Her marriage to Sebastien had broken down shortly before her diagnosis — she was working flat-out, helping to turn around a failing secondary school, he was working flat-out as a banker.

‘It was a classic case of our marriage coming last,’ she would later say.

Having been on the brink of divorce, the couple had just committed to rebuilding their marriage when the blow hit.

They decided being honest with their children about Deborah’s illness was crucial.

‘We talk about my cancer, we let them ask questions and we stick to the facts.

‘I know every day I get with them is a blessing, and I feel safe knowing that they have a great dad and lots of wonderful family and friends who’ll be there to support them if I’m not.’

She has always been frank about the fact she didn’t expect to make it through one Christmas, least of all the five that have followed.  Not that she wants pity. 

‘I don’t want to be a victim, I decided that quite early on,’ she said in 2020. ‘Being a sob story isn’t going to change anything.’

And so she wore stiletto-heel boots to hospital appointments, ran a marathon, wore sequins (a lot) and generally embraced all that life and cancer threw at her.

‘There’s no one way for living with cancer, no official way of coping,’ she would say. ‘You find your own path.’

For Deborah, there were more than 100 cycles of chemotherapy and targeted drug therapy, radiotherapy and other high-tech treatments, as well as numerous operations to treat tumours in her bowel, lungs and liver.

There were also meltdowns and foot-stamping moments, she admitted. And tears.

Many have marvelled at her strength. But, as she says: ‘Living with cancer is like climbing a mountain one day, only to fall off it the next. It takes hard work and resilience.’

In January, Deborah posted a picture from hospital, sharing: ‘I nearly died in what was an acute medical emergency.’ 

Having just learned her cancer had spread, wrapping around her bile duct, she collapsed at home, vomiting blood.

The mother-of-two, who has been battling cancer for five years, said she was surrounded by her 'incredible' family at home (pictured with her children)

The mother-of-two, who has been battling cancer for five years, said she was surrounded by her ‘incredible’ family at home (pictured with her children) 

‘Had it not been for my husband being there, I would not be here today,’ she wrote in February. 

‘He scooped me up and put me in the car. At that moment I knew I was dying.’

Later, she revealed she had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘It has taken me a month to attempt to articulate what happened to me, and I am writing this with tears streaming down my face. 

I have lived knowing I am a ticking time-bomb for five years. Never in a million years did I think I would die in a traumatic medical event.

‘But then, I suppose, I never expected to get incurable cancer aged 35. Life has taught me anything can, and will, happen.’

In typical Deborah style, she shared her tentative steps to recovery with her followers. 

And then, as if sticking her tongue out to it all, a week later she shared a video in which she stood up from her chair, removed her pink, hospital-issue gown to reveal a sparkly sequinned frock and proceeded to lip-synch Celine Dion’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now. 

Why? She had just been told she could go home, and she had promised nurses ‘if they talk seriously about discharging me I’m doing a Celine Dion’.

But then she was readmitted with sepsis and suddenly her hospital posts seemed to outweigh the joyful moments.

Yesterday, she wrote her final Things Cancer Made Me Say column for the Sun newspaper.

‘When I was first diagnosed in 2016, it was beyond comprehensible for me to fathom the idea that I had more chance of dying in the first year than I had of living,’ she wrote. 

‘I wanted so badly to live and have beaten the odds ever since, until now.’

With searing honesty she went on: ‘The last six months have arguably been the hardest of my whole cancer journey — the sheer unrelenting medicalisation of my body has been heart-breaking to experience and the moments of being out of hospital and pain-free have become more and more rare and fleeting.

‘I have essentially lived in hospital since January 6, with only limited company — and while I am eternally grateful for all the doctors and nurses that have gone above and beyond to help me, we have all decided there is a point at which our efforts have become fruitless . . .

‘So I sadly find myself in the place that I never wanted to be — the next crossroads.’

Admitting she was no longer able to use her arms or legs and that her tiredness was all-consuming, she said she felt surrender was inevitable. She wasn’t, she insisted, brave.

‘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.’

Not brave? Many may disagree. Deborah would not be Bowel Babe without a flourish of thanks to her supporters and a reminder to ‘check your poo — it might just save your life’.

Is it too soon to talk of legacies? Deborah says: ‘I always knew that there was one thing I wanted to do before I died.

‘Over the years I have raised as much awareness and money for the charities that are closest to me: Cancer Research UK; The Royal Marsden; and Bowel Cancer UK.

‘I knew that I wanted to make sure I left a pot of money so that these charities can continue their hard work and ensure one day we find a cure for cancer.’

And so the Bowelbabe Fund was set up, with Deborah urging supporters: ‘Please buy me a drink to see me out this world, by donating the cost . . . which will enable us to raise funds for further life-saving research into cancer. To give more Deborahs more time!’

  • To donate to the Bowelbabe Fund, visit justgiving.com/campaign/BowelbabeFund

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