Dame Deborah James dies from bowel cancer aged 40

Dame Deborah James' courage inspired and reassured so many and her fundraising will continue to save lives long after her death, as Ian Woods reports

Campaigner and podcast host Dame Deborah James, who raised millions of pounds for cancer research, has died from the disease aged 40, her family has said in a statement.

The former headteacher was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016 when she was 35 and has kept her more than 500,000 Instagram followers up to date with her treatments. 

She became famous for her podcasting and journalism detailing what life with cancer was like and raising awareness of the symptoms. 

By using humour to de-stigmatise bowel cancer she and her podcast co-hosts Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland won acclaim for supporting others battling the disease. 

On May 9 she announced that she had “tried everything” but her “body simply isn’t playing ball” and said her active care had stopped. 

She said she was receiving hospice care at home and said she did not know how much time she had left. 

A statement posted by her family on Instagram on Tuesday evening said: “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 @bowelbabefund. 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.’”

Prior to her illness, Dame Deborah worked as a headteacher at two secondary schools in Surrey, where she worked until her diagnosis. 

Soon after she learned about her bowel cancer she began working as a journalist detailing her cancer journey in The Times and in March 2018, she began hosting the “You Me and the Big C” podcast for the BBC. 

The trio found huge success with their podcast and won several awards. 

In September 2018, when Bland announced she only had days to live the podcast reached the number one spot in the UK podcast charts.  

Since then the podcast has occasionally been co-hosted by Bland’s widower Steve Bland. 

In September 2018 James released her book “F*** You Cancer: How to Face the Big C, Live Your Life and Still Be Yourself” detailing her life with the disease. 

In June 2021 she announced after an extensive effort her cancer was going “in the wrong direction” and the drugs she relied on were no longer effective. 

By the time of her post in May, she was unable to walk and spent most of her time sleeping. 

Two days after making her post on social media she raised millions for her campaign, the Bowelbabe Fund, for Cancer Research UK. The total currently stands at more than £6.7 million.

James’ podcast co-host Mahon told ITV News in May they launched the podcast at a time when the “online community for cancer wasn’t really there” and “no one was having these conversations.” 

She said the “chemistry was instant, it’s a shared bond, it’s difficult to explain, it’s very unique.” 

She added: “We did start something that we’re all incredibly proud of and I think at times like this we all realise the impact we’ve had.” 

Mahon said the podcast was about raising awareness and ensuring everyone got the checks they needed but it was also about “showing what life with cancer was like.” 

A few days after James’ announcement Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced she would be awarded a damehood for her activism. 

He said at the time: “If ever an honour was richly deserved, this is it. 

“Deborah has been an inspiration and her honesty, warmth and courage has been a source of strength to so many people. 

“Through her tireless campaigning and by so openly sharing her experience she has not only helped in our fight against this terrible disease, she has ensured countless others with the Big C have not felt alone.”

Prince William personally delivered Deborah James' damehood. Credit: Instagram/Bowelbabe

Prince William delivered the award to her personally, which James described as a “very special memory.”

In the weeks after being awarded her damehood a rose was named after her.

She was shown around the Chelsea Flower Show with her husband where she got to see the rose.

Dame Deborah told the BBC: “Flowers are a reminder of our future. We plant the seed not knowing what we might see grow.

“Being around nature gives us a lift and it is a reminder that life continues to blossom, even in some of the hardest places, and brings a smile to all of our faces, even in the hardest of times – particularly mine.”

She married her husband Sebastian in 2008 and they had two children together. 

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

According to the NHS, the three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • persistent blood in your poo – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit

  • a persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny

  • persistent lower, bloating or discomfort – that's always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite and weight

The NHS says most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms such as a change in diet or haemorrhoids.

However, the NHS recommends seeing your GP if you have had any of these symptoms for three weeks or more.

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