A WHIRLWIND IN SEQUINS My friend Deborah James was so beautiful, bonkers and bloody-minded I never actually believed this day would come
TRUST Deborah James to go out in such style.
Millions raised to fund cancer research, a Damehood, a visit from a Prince and a bestselling book – all after capturing the hearts of the entire nation.
In life, her light shone brighter than anyone I’ve ever met – her passion to live was incomparable.
She was a whirlwind – dressed in sequins, wearing bright pink lippy and nagging anyone who would listen: “Check your poo”.
Deborah died yesterday at the age of 40, five years and 7 months after she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Even in her final days, as she faced her death, my bonkers, beautiful and bloody-minded friend refused to stop.
She had “death admin” to do, and a legacy to leave.
The £6.7million she raised in a matter of days is just part of Deborah’s story.
But it’s one that allows her to realise a dream she clung to – her wish that she could help stop others facing what she had to.
She told me time and time again, she wanted to leave this world a better place for her kids, Eloise, 12, and Hugo, 14.
As with everything Deborah did, her children and her family were her inspiration.
“I want them to live in a world where they don’t need to worry about cancer – and I want them to know I did everything I could to make that happen for them,” she wrote in a column in 2019.
“I want them to be proud of me, for making an impact and raising awareness of cancer and its signs and symptoms.”
Little did she know then, the impact she would have.
I have edited Deborah’s Sun column, Things Cancer Made Me Say for five years.
What started as work, quickly turned into a special friendship and bond.
Deborah wasn’t a hard person to fall in love with, she sparkled. Her wicked sense of humour and bonkers ideas coupled with her innate understanding of people, made her an infectious person to be around.
‘NEVER TOO YOUNG’
We spoke most days, we laughed, cried towards the end and ranted F*** Cancer together. Nothing was ever off limits.
I first met her in February 2017, just after she was told the 6cm tumour growing inside her bowel was incurable cancer.
In that very first interview she told me: “You’re never too young.”
At 35, she was fit and healthy, a marathon-running veggie with two kids and a busy job as a deputy head teacher.
She didn’t fit the cancer mould – and that was Deborah’s secret weapon.
Her story resonated with so many, a young mum who put her symptoms – changing bowel habits, weight loss and tiredness – down to the stress of a busy life.
She didn’t look like she could possibly have stage 4 cancer – she made people think.
In five years she has totally changed the conversation around bowel cancer – breaking poo taboos and in doing so, she has saved countless lives.
She’s shared her journey in her Sun column, her Instagram account under the handle BowelBabe has amassed almost 500,000 followers, she co-hosted the BBC podcast, You, Me and the Big C, she’s written a book F*** You Cancer: How to Face the Big C, Live Your Life and Still Be Yourself.
Fronting The Sun’s No Time 2 Lose campaign in 2018, Deborah helped put pressure on the Government to change the law, lowering the bowel cancer screening age from 60 to 50.
When Covid struck, the campaigning beast inside her reignited.
In one of her best read columns published in September 2020, she revealed she’d lost four friends to cancer on a day when three lives were lost to Covid.
‘GET A GRIP’
She called on the Government to “get a grip”, adding: “We need to wake up to the fact that other sh*t is going down too!”
Deborah didn’t mince her words, she was blunt, honest and said it how it was.
But her magic wasn’t just in the message she delivered – it was how she did it.
Knowing full well that early diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death when it comes to cancer, she urged people to learn the symptoms.
“Knowledge is power, and in this case it could save your life,” she wrote.
She would never forgive me if I didn’t take this opportunity to remind you that blood in your poo or bleeding from your back passage, persistent and unexplained change in your bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, feeling exhausted for no reason and a pain or lump in your tummy, can all be warning signs of bowel cancer.
Once a teacher, always a teacher!
But, Debs didn’t just stop at ‘banging on about it’ (her words, not mine), she took action.
She dressed up as a poo emoji to normalise conversations around changing bowel habits.
She hosted a ‘poo school’, donning a hat in the shape of a turd and, with the help of her kids, made different ‘types’ of number twos out of playdough.
She marched into a bar to quiz men about their prostates and urged women to learn the difference between their vagina and vulva.
It’s stunts like this that helped Dame Debs achieve in five years what many charities have tried for decades.
Deborah managed to cut through and deliver the message; that if you notice any worrying symptoms, or anything that’s not normal for you, get it checked by a GP.
Simple, effective but most importantly, life-saving.
Trying to prevent other people ending up in her shoes – heels, always – was one thing but what she did for the cancer community was seismic.
Rocking up to chemo sessions at The Royal Marsden adorned in sequins, fancy dress and treating fellow patients to carefully choreographed dance routines, Debs gave thousands a new lease of life.
The 40-year-old showed it was possible to live when you’re dying from cancer.
‘I DON’T HAVE TO STOP LIVING’
When I interviewed her ahead of the launch of her book, F*** You Cancer, in September 2018 she told me: “We are all dying, I might just get there faster than other people.
“That doesn’t mean I have to stop living.
“If anything, cancer has been a wake-up call. It means you have to live every day.
“If cancer has taught me anything, it’s to live life.
“Don’t wait, just get up and do the things you’ve always dreamed of.”
Not everyone understood Debs. She would often call me, shocked at cruel comments from trolls accusing her of “glamourising cancer” and “loving herself”.
They missed the point completely – and didn’t deserve her concern. Cancer or no cancer, Deborah was unapologetically her.
She shared the highs and lows of her journey – posting photos of her in tears, and suffering hideous skin rashes after gruelling treatment.
When she got dressed up to dance through her treatment, that was Debs’ way of coping – it was the fuel she needed to face the next round of whatever cancer had to throw at her.
CELEBRATE YOUR BODY
She wasn’t arrogant or a show off, she celebrated her body – and she earned that right.
In March she wrote a piece to defend celebrities like Britney and Ranvir Singh, after they were trolled.
“Five years ago, my body failed me in a way I will never recover from, yet since that day it has fought tirelessly to keep me alive,” she said.
“It’s covered in scars from countless operations and treatments but these imperfections serve as a reminder that I am still here.
“That’s why I celebrate my body, I’m in awe of its power and I thank my lucky stars every day it’s still going.”
BREAK THE TABOO
Breaking taboos was her thing – and she didn’t stop at smashing the “poo taboo”.
She openly talked about the toll cancer took on her mental health and how pals in her “3am club” helped her face her deepest fears and anxieties.
She was refreshingly honest about sex and cancer, telling fellow patients: “Sexual problems are normal post treatment, but you’re not alone so don’t suffer in silence.”
She harnessed the power of exercise – insisting on running from her home to The Royal Marsden to get her scan results, just to prove to herself that she could.
In sharing all that, she proved to be an inspiration to hundreds of thousands of people living with cancer – she made sure they weren’t alone and she gave people hope.
Rebellious hope became her lifeline.
Every time she faced bad news, her laser focus was on the options. She would tell me: “As long as I have options, I have hope.”
She never stopped hoping for a miracle – a new treatment that might appear and give her more precious time – not until the very end.
And even then, in the darkest of her days, she held on to a new hope.
Knowing her health was fading, she refused to let her light dim.
With the help of her family, she achieved the seemingly impossible task of establishing the BowelBabe Fund to fund future research in the hope of one day finding a cure and sticking two fingers up to cancer for good.
In her final column for The Sun, Debs outlined her plans for the future – not her own, but a future for the one in two people who will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.
“I always knew that there was one thing I wanted to do before I died,” she wrote.
“I knew I wanted to make sure I left a pot of money so that these charities (Cancer Research UK, The Royal Marsden and Bowel Cancer UK), can continue their hard work and ensure one day we find a cure for cancer.”
In just a week, Deborah smashed the £250,000 target she set herself, raising £6.3million and counting.
Captivated by her, people across the world rushed to donate the cost of a drink, to see her on her way and help her give one final ‘f*** you’ to cancer.
‘LOST FOR WORDS’
It was an outpouring of love that brought Deborah and her whole family a huge comfort, as they faced the cruel inevitable.
“We’re completely lost for words,” they said. “This is all just beyond anything we could have ever imagined.”
The money Debs has raised, and will go on to raise, will save lives.
She often said she was “riding on the wings of science” – it carried her, helping her defy the odds.
When she was diagnosed, she didn’t expect to live a year.
Thanks to science she celebrated her 40th last October, and marked her five-year ‘cancerversary’ in December, before one last Christmas.
Debs had a very specific type of bowel cancer – the beast of bowel cancers, she called it – known in scientific terms as a B-RAF mutation.
She wrote in a column: “First rule of B-RAF club… don’t Google it. Second rule… DON’T Google it.
“There’s good reason, us B-RAF patients have, on the whole, worse outcomes. Our cancers tend to get used to treatments faster, which means we run out of options quicker.”
In 2018, that appeared to be Debs’ reality.
She had stopped responding to chemo, and her cancer had spread to her liver.
Determined not to give up, Deborah broke the rules of B-RAF club and Googled it.
She found a clinical trial and with the help of her oncologist Professor David Cunningham (the Prof as she called him), she was accepted on compassionate grounds.
It was aptly called the Beacon Trial and it proved to be Debs’ beacon of hope.
Not only did the drugs keep Deborah alive for years, they rendered her disease inactive and led to her being dubbed ‘cancer free’ twice in a year.
These drugs were approved by Nice for use on the NHS after Deborah jumped at the chance to be a case study and petition for their use.
Thanks, in part, to Debs, patients across the country are now getting the same chance to live that she did.
In her last column she poignantly wrote: “I suppose the reality is that I am still the outlier – so my story isn’t one of sadness, it’s one of the extra years that I gained thanks to research and knowing that, because of my case studies, future Deborahs with the same B-RAF mutation, might go on to live longer lives.”
It was last summer when those drugs stopped working, and Debs’ liver began to fail.
Repeated operations to try and stent her bile duct – to reverse the liver failure – left her facing four bouts of sepsis.
In January, she was rushed to hospital by her husband Seb after suffering a catastrophic internal bleed that left her in intensive care.
The last six months of her life were the hardest she faced. She lived in the hospital, with only limited visits from her family and the odd day out for good behaviour.
Last month Deborah had no choice but to “surrender to the inevitable” after repeated sepsis infections meant she had nothing left.
She wrote: “I’ve now entered into end of life care at home, it’s just about symptom management and trying to make me comfortable and meeting my desires to try and have the best quality death that I can.”
Deborah chose to die at her parents’ home in Woking. It’s where she often went after an operation to let mum, Heather, and dad, Alistair, look after her.
It meant her whole family could be around her in her last days, and she was clear she didn’t want her children to be scarred by her dying at their family home in South London.
With the help of the man she called her ‘rock’, her husband of 13 years, Seb, she made memory boxes, recorded letters for her kids and bought them presents to mark future birthdays.
In a column she wrote years ago, reflecting on her death, she said of her kids: “I want them to remember me as being passionate about life and living – and passionate about them.
“I want them to recall their quirky, crazy mum who danced with them in the rain, drank wine and laughed when she wanted to cry.
“I want them to grow up to have no regrets, put their health first, live in the moment and to make the most of every opportunity.”
Debs, you set an incredible example for them to follow – of that, I have no doubt.
What she achieved in her final days is nothing short of remarkable.
She got the Royal seal of approval from The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge who summed it up when they tweeted: “Every now and then, someone captures the heart of the nation with their zest for life and tenacious desire to give back to society.
“@bowelbabe is one of those special people.”
Never in her wildest dreams did Debs think it would culminate in a Damehood, and a visit from Prince William himself.
In the end, you only regret the chances you didn’t takeDame Deborah James
Hours after that tweet friends and colleagues here at The Sun mounted a campaign to make Debs a Dame, backed by everyone from A-list celebs like David Beckham, Anthony Joshua and Piers Morgan to mums at the school gate.
On May 12, moments after her husband Seb woke Debs up and she heard the news, she messaged me.
“OMFG,” she wrote. “I can’t stop crying.”
I have never known her lost for words, until then. She was speechless, if only for a few seconds.
In the last few days I’ve panicked that every message with Debs would be our last.
We discussed Debs dying a lot in the last five years, but as silly as it sounds, I never really believed it would happen.
I never let myself imagine a world without her magic, her wisdom and her dirty laugh.
I will miss her but that light of hers is too bright to dim – her whirlwind spins on.
The truth is, I don’t know how to end this tribute to my beautiful friend.
She always knew exactly the right thing to say – she could read the mood perfectly.
So maybe it’s best to leave it with a message from the Dame herself: “In the end, you only regret the chances you didn’t take.
“Don’t put stuff off, don’t regret not seeing your loved ones.
“Get up and live in the moment, and make those memories now – and don’t forget to check your poo, it might just save your life.”