Dame Deborah James, the director turned podcaster who raised millions of pounds for charity with her colon cancer awareness campaign, has died, her family has said.
James, who was 40, retired from a career as a deputy headteacher and started blogging about her diagnosis in 2017 under the name Bowelbabe. She became a Sun columnist and released a book, F*** 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 colon cancer on the popular BBC podcast You, Me and the Big C, which she began presenting in 2018. Alongside Lauren Mahon and BBC Radio 5 live newscaster Rachael Bland, James created a show that has been praised for its intimate, candid and lively discussion of cancer.
When Bland died of breast cancer six months after the show’s launch, James formed a presentation duo with Mahon, speaking with celebrity guests, tackling practicalities like hair loss, and trying to raise awareness with signature good humor. During 2018’s colon cancer awareness week, James attempted to destigmatize the condition by dressing in a “poo suit” — a poo-emoji costume for a six-year-old.
A statement from her family on Instagram said: “We are deeply saddened to announce the death of Dame Deborah James; the most wonderful wife, daughter, sister, mom.
“Deborah passed away peacefully today surrounded by her family.
“Deborah, whom many of you will know as Bowelbabe, was an inspiration and we are incredibly proud of her and her work and dedication to charity campaigns, fundraising and her endless efforts to raise awareness of cancer that has touched so many lives.
“Deborah shared her experience with the world to raise awareness, break down barriers, break taboos and change the conversation about cancer. “Even in her most challenging moments, her determination to raise money and raise awareness was inspiring.”
James spoke candidly about her treatments, progress and diagnosis to her huge Instagram following, which climbed from 300,000 to 500,000 towards the end of her life.
In a post on May 10, she said she never expected to make it to her 40th birthday or see her kids start high 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 a home hospice, where she slept most days and struggled to walk. She said she had left “no stone unturned” in search of treatment, but that even a “magical new breakthrough” wouldn’t make a difference.
She wrote: “The message I never wanted to write. We’ve tried everything, but my body just isn’t cooperating. 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 she was receiving end-of-life care, she launched a cancer research fundraiser, the Bowelbabe Fund, which has raised more than £6 million on her JustGiving page to date.
A few days after the launch, she became a lady, with Prince William going to her parents’ house to present her with the award for her awareness 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 and tenacious desire to give back to society. @darmbabe is one of those special people.”
James’ second and final book, How To Live When You Could Be Dead, topped the Amazon UK bestseller list on pre-order alone. The memoir-cum-self-help bundle rocketed to the top of the charts within a day after James announced on Instagram that it was possible to pre-order a copy. She also released a clothing line, the proceeds of which went to her Bowel Babe fund, and said her final goodbyes in a tearful final appearance on You, Me and the Big C.
As she 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 colon cancer — in her own signature way.
“Thank you guys for everything, for being our partners in crime at the club you never wanted to be a part of. I assume that’s mine. It’s very sad to say, but I’m glad I got to the point where I can say it and we’ll see each other dancing somewhere, somehow. Oh, and also: check your poop. I can use no other words.”