Deborah James, British Cancer Campaigner and Podcaster, Dies at 40


LONDON — Deborah James, a British podcaster, writer and cancer campaigner who chronicled her struggle with an incurable bowel tumor with candor and vivacity, died on Tuesday, more than five years after the illness was diagnosed.

Her death was announced on her Instagram account.

“Deborah passed away peacefully today, surrounded by her family,” read a post on her highly popular Instagram account, Bowelbabe, adding some last words from Ms. James.

“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.”

Ms. James co-hosted “You, Me and the Big C,” a BBC podcast about cancer, wrote a column about her journey through her illness for the British tabloid The Sun, tirelessly raised awareness and funds for the cause, and wrote a book, “F*** You Cancer: How to face the big C.”

Through these mediums, she sought to help others spot the early signs of bowel cancer, fight the taboos around the illness and help patients cope.

“Because of her, many many lives will be saved,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “The awareness she brought to bowel cancer and the research her campaigning has funded will be her enduring legacy.”

Deborah James was born on Oct. 1, 1981, the daughter of Heather and Alistair James. She graduated from the University of Exeter and became a deputy head teacher. She is survived by her parents; her husband, Sebastien Bowen; her daughter, Eloise, 12; her son, Hugo, 14; her brother, Ben James, and her sister, Sarah Wieczorek.

In 2016, Ms. James believed she was experiencing the symptoms of bowel cancer, but wrote in her blog that her doctor, or general practitioner, had dismissed her fears. A young woman with a generally healthy lifestyle, “I totally get why a GP would dismiss my self-diagnosis of bowel cancer especially in a neurotic hypochondriac such as myself,” she wrote on her blog. On Dec. 15, 2016, when she was 35, doctors spotted what turned out to be a Stage 4 tumor in her bowel.

That day, she and her husband drove to a wine shop and he bought her the most expensive bottle, “a beautifully rich, Leoville Barton 1996,” Ms. James told the British charity Bowel Cancer UK shortly after her diagnosis. They finished off the bottle “as though Armageddon was scheduled for 7 p.m. the next day.”

One study gave her eight months to live, and another said she had an 8 percent chance of living for five years, she wrote. She quit her job and started chronicling her new life.

She described her insomnia, pain, numbness and constant fears of decline, and wrote about what it was like to wonder “if it’s too risky to put something in your diary for next week.” She detailed her medical emergencies, therapies, surgeries, and her body’s biological reactions to them.

But she also posted videos in which she sang Celine Dion songs in her hospital room, wrote about doing “retail therapy” at Harrods, described eating roast potatoes while watching a James Bond movie to recover from physical exhaustion and detailed overcoming her fear of flying. “I’m more likely to die of my cancer than on this plane,” she wrote on her blog as she sipped gin and tonic at 40,000 feet. “I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry!!”

Her Instagram profile, which had a million followers, featured selfies in hospital gowns and glamorous glittery dresses, smiling photos in a hospital ward and at fashion shows, and videos of her dancing on a wheelchair or with her husband at sunset by the sea.

“Greatest achievement 2021: Staying Alive,” she wrote as a caption for a video on Instagram in which she danced to the Bee Gees song on New Year’s Eve. “New Years Resolution 2022: Staying Alive!”

In the podcast, which she co-founded in 2018, she hosted conversations with other patients about how cancer affected their sex lives or what it meant to have the disease during the coronavirus pandemic. But she also opened up about her personal life and condition, and detailed her anxieties and feeling of powerlessness.

“Doing things like the podcast has given me purpose back,” she said on the podcast in May. “I have never felt alone because of that.”

Lauren Mahon, who co-founded and co-hosted the podcast, said that by talking about cancer in an intimate, heartfelt voice, she and Ms. James had helped dispel an aura of cynicism and awkwardness around the topic.

“We changed the way people talk about cancer in this country,” said Ms. Mahon, who is living with cancer. “I don’t even know any celebrity or Hollywood star that could have this profound impact on so many people on such a deep level.”

On May 10, Ms. James announced she had stopped actively treating her cancer and had moved from a hospital to her parents’ house.

“I have tried so hard for five years,” she said on the podcast. “My body doesn’t want to play ball anymore.”

Ms. James’s followers expressed sorrow about the news and gratitude for her efforts, with tens of thousands of comments appearing on her social media. Her new cancer fund received nearly 7 million pounds (more than $8 million), well above her initial target of 250,000 pounds. Among her supporters were Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge.

“Every now and then, someone captures the heart of the nation with their zest for life & tenacious desire to give back to society. @bowelbabe is one of those special people,” the royals wrote on Twitter in May. “Thank you for giving hope to so many who are living with cancer.”

On May 12, Downing Street announced that Queen Elizabeth had approved a damehood for Ms. James, and the next day Prince William visited Ms. James at her family house.

In an interview with the Times of London in May, Ms. James said she wanted a somber funeral in black and white. “I think people look good in black and white,” she told the Times interviewer, lying back a bed of cushions wearing red lipstick and sipping champagne.

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