LONDON – Deborah James, a British podcaster, writer and cancer activist who chronicled her battle with an incurable colon tumor with candor and vivacity, died Tuesday, more than five years after the disease was diagnosed.
Her passing was announced on her Instagram account.
“Deborah passed away peacefully today surrounded by her family,” read a post on her very popular Instagram account, Bowelbabe, adding some final words from Ms. James.
“Find a life worth enjoying; Take risks; deeply grounded love; have no regrets; and always, always have rebellious hopes. And finally, check your poop – it could save your life.”
Ms. James co-hosted “You, Me and the Big C”, a BBC cancer podcast, 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 Cope with the Big C.”
Through these media she tried to help others recognize the early signs of colon cancer, fight the taboos surrounding the disease and help patients cope with it.
“Thanks to her many lives will be saved,” wrote Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Twitter on Tuesday. “The awareness she has brought to colon cancer and the research her campaign has funded will be her lasting legacy.”
Deborah James was born on October 1, 1981, the daughter of Heather and Alistair James. She graduated from the University of Exeter and became an assistant 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 had the symptoms of colon cancer, but wrote in her blog that her doctor, or primary care physician, had dismissed her fears. A young woman with a generally healthy lifestyle: “I totally understand why a GP would reject my colon cancer self-diagnosis, especially in a neurotic hypochondriac like me,” she wrote on her blog. On December 15, 2016, when she was 35, doctors saw what turned out to be a stage 4 tumor in her gut.
That day she and her husband drove to a wine shop and he bought her the most expensive bottle, “a beautiful empire, Leoville Barton 1996,” Mrs James told the British charity Bowel Cancer UK shortly after her diagnosis. They emptied the bottle “as if Armageddon had been 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 five years, she wrote. She quit her job and started writing down her new life.
Describing her insomnia, pain, numbness and constant fear of regression, she wrote of what it was like to wonder “if it’s too risky to put something on your calendar for next week.” She described her medical emergencies, therapies, surgeries, and her body’s biological responses to them.
But she also posted videos of her singing Celine Dion songs in her hospital room, wrote about doing “retail therapy” at Harrods, described eating baked potatoes while watching a James Bond movie to recover from physical exhaustion, and detailed overcome her fear of flying. “I die more from my cancer than from 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 glitter dresses, smiling photos in a hospital ward and at fashion shows, and videos of her dancing in a wheelchair or with her husband at sunset by the sea.
“Greatest Achievement 2021: Staying Alive,” she captioned an Instagram video of her dancing to the Bee Gees song on New Year’s Eve. “New Year’s Resolution 2022: Stay Alive!”
In the podcast, which she co-founded in 2018, she had 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, addressing her fears and sense of powerlessness.
“By doing things like the podcast, I have a purpose back,” she said in the podcast in May. “That’s why I never felt alone.”
Lauren Mahon, co-founder and co-host of the podcast, said that by talking about cancer in an intimate, sincere voice, she and Mrs. James had helped dispel an aura of cynicism and uneasiness around the subject.
“We’ve changed the way people talk about cancer in this country,” said Ms Mahon, who lives with cancer. “I don’t even know a celebrity or Hollywood star who could have such a profound impact on so many people at such a deep level.”
On May 10, Mrs. James indicated that she had stopped active treatment for her cancer and had moved from a hospital to her parents’ home.
“I tried so hard for five years,” she said in the podcast. “My body doesn’t want to play with the ball anymore.”
The followers of Mrs. James expressed sadness at 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 (more than $8 million), well above her initial goal of £250,000. Among her supporters were Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge.
“Every once in a while 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, “the royals wrote on Twitter in May. “Thank you for giving hope to so many people living with cancer.”
On May 12, Downing Street announced that Queen Elizabeth had approved a damehood for Mrs. James, and the following day, Prince William visited Mrs. James at her family home.
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 on a bed of pillows with red lipstick on and sipping champagne.