Deborah James ‘taught us how to live and how to die’

Posted: 29th June 2022

Podcast host and campaigner Dame Deborah James has died, after announcing in May that she was receiving end of life care for bowel cancer. With her candid persona and infectious sense of fun, the presenter of the BBC’s You, Me and the Big C touched the lives of many.

“She was one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met,” says BBC 5 Live presenter Tony Livesey, a friend and colleague of Dame Deborah. “She had this incredible zest for life, even in the face of her own death.”

Diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer at the age of 35 in December 2016, James said, “my entire world changed”.

She was married to Sebastien Bowen, a banker, for 13 years, and with whom she had two children, Hugo and Eloise. After her diagnosis, she left her job as a deputy head teacher and began writing a blog, which went on to become her award-winning, weekly column Things Cancer Made Me Say, in The Sun online.

James then shot to fame as one of the presenters of the BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C alongside Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland, in which the trio discussed the nitty-gritty of living with a cancer diagnosis.

“They didn’t want to pussyfoot around it [cancer], they didn’t want to use euphemistic language – they wanted to call it for what it was,” says Livesey.

“But at the same time, Debs never dialled down the fun. If you looked at her social media – if she wasn’t dancing in the street, or singing, she was laughing in the face of cancer.”

James was a patient at the Royal Marsden hospital, where she underwent more than a dozen operations and multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She also received experimental cancer treatment.

It was while in an anaesthetic daze following one operation that she ordered a poo costume online. Although it had been designed for a six-year-old, she would wear it on her social media feeds and while recording her podcast to raise awareness about bowel cancer.

“We need to break the poo taboo,” she said. “People are embarrassed, they don’t want to talk about poo, but let’s face it, we all do it.”

BBC presenter Rachel Burden, who interviewed James many times, says that as well as caring passionately about supporting others dealing with cancer, James was vibrant, articulate and full of fun.

“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 says.

“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.”

James’ irreverent approach gave her wide appeal – she had huge numbers of followers – more than 100K on Twitter and almost as big a following on Instagram – and had campaigned with a number of national charities including Bowel Cancer UK and Cancer Research UK.

She went on to set up the Bowelbabe Fund – named after her online handle – to fund research into personalised medicine for cancer patients, and to support campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer.

“She took a stage three bowel cancer diagnosis and turned it into an incredible force for good,” says Genevieve Edwards of Bowel Cancer UK.

A keen runner, James described herself as loving fashion, make-up and jewellery.

“She was absolutely not defined by her cancer,” says Dr Philippa Kaye, a GP and fellow bowel cancer patient who was a friend of James.

“Mother, campaigner, influencer, charity fundraiser, runner, make-up lover – all of those things made up Deborah, not just cancer.”


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