Dame Deborah James, the headteacher turned podcaster who raised millions of pounds for charity with her campaigning to raise awareness of bowel cancer, has died, her family has said.
James, who was 40, stepped away from a career as a deputy headteacher and began blogging about her diagnosis under the name Bowel Babe in 2017. She went on to become a Sun columnist and released a book, Fuck You Cancer: How to Face the Big C, Live Your Life and Still Be Yourself.
She was best known for sharing her six-year battle with terminal bowel cancer on the popular BBC podcast You, Me and the Big C, which she began co-presenting in 2018. Alongside Lauren Mahon and the BBC Radio 5 live newsreader Rachael Bland, James created a show that earned praise for its intimate, frank and lively discussion of cancer.
When Bland died of breast cancer six months after the show’s launch, James formed a presenting duo with Mahon, and they spoke to celebrity guests, tackled practical matters such as hair loss and attempted to raise awareness with characteristic good humour. During bowel cancer awareness week in 2018, James attempted to destigmatise the condition by dressing up in a “poo suit” – a poo-emoji fancy dress outfit sized for a six-year-old.
A statement posted by her family on Instagram 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.”
James candidly detailed her treatments, progress and diagnosis to her large Instagram following, which climbed from 300,000 to 500,000 towards the end of her life.
In a post on 10 May, she said she had never expected to reach her 40th birthday, or see her children go to secondary school.
She described how her health had deteriorated over the past six months and said she was no longer receiving active care. She had moved to hospice at home, where she was sleeping most days and struggling to walk. She said she had left “no stone unturned” in search of treatment, but that even a “magic new breakthrough” would not make a difference.
She wrote: “The message I never wanted to write. We have tried everything, but my body simply isn’t playing ball. My incredible family [are] all around me and the focus is on making sure I’m not in pain and spending time with them.”
After announcing that she was receiving end-of-life care, she launched a fundraiser for cancer research, the Bowelbabe Fund, which has so far raised more than £6m on her JustGiving page.
A few days after its launch she was made a dame, with Prince William attending her parents’ home to give her the award for her awareness-raising campaigns. A tweet from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s account said: “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.”
James’s second and final book, How To Live When You Could Be Dead, topped the Amazon UK bestsellers list on pre-orders alone. The memoir-cum-self-help volume shot to the top of the charts within a day of James announcing on Instagram that it was possible to reserve a copy. She also released a clothing line whose proceeds go towards her Bowel Babe fund, and said her final farewells in a teary last appearance on You, Me and the Big C.
As her and her producer wiped away tears during the episode, entitled Deborah James’ Last Dance, she thanked listeners and urged them to watch for signs of bowel cancer – in her own characteristic way.
“Thank you guys for everything, for being our partners in crime in the club that you never wanted to be part of. I suppose that’s it from me. It’s a very sad thing to say, but I’m pleased that I have got to the point where I can say it and we’ll see each other again somewhere, somehow, dancing. Oh, and also: check your poo. I can’t leave on any other words.”