Dame Deborah James: Eamonn Holmes pays tribute to bowel cancer campaigner

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

The Belfast-born broadcaster Eamonn Holmes has paid tribute to the bowel cancer campaigner Dame Deborah James who died on Tuesday.

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

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. 

Posting on Instagram, Eamonn Holmes recalled a recent meeting with Dame Deborah.

"Bye Dame Deborah. This was just 2 weeks ago at Ascot," he posted.

"She told us then that she had been given just a week to live and had already out lasted that by 2 weeks. May you #RestinPeace.

Dame Deborah's mother Heather shared a series of photos of her daughter and wrote: “My heart is broken. Love you forever.”

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.” Dame Deborah James had a “special gift” which allowed her to have “difficult conversations” with the public that would ultimately save “countless lives”, a charity boss said.

The podcaster became a patron for Bowel Cancer UK following her diagnosis in 2016 and worked to raise money for and awareness of the charity.

Its chief executive Genevieve Edwards said her legacy would live on through her campaigning work.

She said: “Deborah has been an incredible force for good, for our charity and others. Since the day of her diagnosis she has shone a bright light on bowel cancer.

“She hasn’t stopped in her tireless attempts to raise awareness. She has raised thousands and thousands of pounds for the causes close to her heart and even in the most difficult days personally for her she has never stopped helping others."

Ms Edwards described Dame Deborah’s legacy as “huge” and said she had never seen so many conversations about bowel cancer taking place.

“That has been her special gift – to connect with others and to have those difficult conversations.

“And in doing so prompt people to take action, and she has saved countless lives.”

Ms Edwards encouraged the public to heed Dame Deborah’s advice when she encouraged them to “Check your poo”.

She said: “It is one of the key symptoms of bowel cancer, when something doesn’t feel right for you."

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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