When Dame Deborah James revealed that she was receiving hospice-at-home care for terminal bowel cancer, she admitted that she had hoped to be an outlier who would live for ever.
That was not to be. But James’s legacy will live on: one that will give countless other Deborahs across the country more time to live than she was able to have herself.
This achievement for other cancer sufferers was James’s passionate hope. From her role as co-host of the BBC podcast You, Me and the Big C, in which she spoke in a no-nonsense tone about living with bowel cancer, to the almost £7m she raised through her Bowelbabe fund – including £1.5m in a single day – James’s campaigning was inspirational and unfaltering.
She urged potential sufferers to be persistent and to not ignore symptoms such as blood in the toilet, a persistent and unexplained change in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, extreme tiredness for no obvious reason and a pain or lump in the stomach.
Teresa Whitfield is just one of those who have said James’s advice helped save their own lives after they developed bowel cancer. Whitfield was inspired to go to her GP after watching James describing her symptoms on breakfast TV. “Without her campaigning I wouldn’t have kept going back to my GP,” said Whitfield. “She triggered something in me and I’m now cancer-free. She did save my life. I can only say thank you. Without her I don’t think I would be here today.”
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The millions that James raised will be ploughed into clinical trials and research into a disease that people are usually too embarrassed to speak about, much less raise money for. James, however, suffered no such coyness: her final message to her 1 million Instagram followers exhorted them to “check your poo – it could just save your life”.
Friends described her as a “warrior” who “taught us how to live and taught us how to die”. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who made a private visit to James at her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey, in mid-May, called her an “inspirational and unfalteringly brave woman whose legacy will live on”.
The BBC news presenter George Alagiah, who was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer in 2014, said earlier screening would have helped in his own case. Calling James “a beacon, lighting the way for all of us”, he said: “Knowing that bowelbabe Dame Deborah James was nearing the end of her journey here does not make her passing any easier to accept. Thank you for your example. Deborah, rest in peace now.”
Michelle Mitchell, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said James had “challenged taboos” around cancer with honesty and compassion. “She was an inspiration to so many people and her impact will be felt for years to come,” Mitchell said. “A powerful writer, reporter and broadcaster, Deborah shone a light on the devastating impact of Covid on cancer care and was a passionate advocate for the power of science and early diagnosis.”
Mitchell said the overwhelming support that James’s Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK had received was “a testament to how many people Deborah touched with her warmth, energy and sense of fun. She was a wonderful person and will be greatly missed by so many people.”
The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity also paid tribute to James in a post on its website, saying: “Deborah was an absolute inspiration to so many people with cancer, and a passionate supporter of the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. We are hugely grateful for her support.”
It added: “Behind the scenes, Deborah would take the time to chat to other patients on social media and offer her advice and support.
“For someone who loved to get dressed up and speak publicly, much of what Deborah did for the cancer community was actually quiet, understated, and from the chemo chair or in the middle of the night.”
Boris Johnson released a public statement, saying James was “an inspiration to so many. The awareness she brought to bowel cancer and the research her campaigning has funded will be her enduring legacy. Because of her, many many lives will be saved.”
During her life, however, Johnson did not reply to several letters James wrote to him, asking why the government was throwing everything at the Covid-19 pandemic and not doing the same for cancer. “More people died last year of cancer than of Covid,” she said in 2021.