Deborah James-The Lancet

Cancer campaigner, podcaster, and teacher. Born Oct 1, 1981 in London, UK, she died of bowel cancer on June 28, 2022 in Woking, UK, aged 40 years.

Deborah James, who was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in 2016, was inventive in how she raised awareness about the disease. She wrote and spoke publicly about her experiences, posted videos of herself dancing in hospital rooms, and even dressed in a child’s poo costume to record an episode of You, Me and the Big C, the podcast she hosted with two other cancer patients. Her passion and playfulness were rooted in “a deep seriousness about understanding the science,” said Michelle Mitchell, the Chief Executive Officer of Cancer Research UK in London, UK. “When she spoke, she spoke with authority and evidence. What made her so appealing is she also spoke with such humor and humility in simple ways, which enabled people to connect with the story of science, but also with her personal story.”

James studied economics at the University of Exeter, UK, graduating in 2003, before going into education. She was a deputy head teacher at Salesian School in Chertsey and then at the Matthew Arnold School in Staines-upon-Thames. After her cancer diagnosis, she transitioned into raising awareness about the illness. “Pretty much from day one, she turned it into the phenomenal force for good that it became,” said Genevieve Edwards, the Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK, based in London, UK. “She was tirelessly campaigning, fundraising, and raising awareness about bowel cancer.”

In 2017, James started a regular column for The Sun and wrote candidly about all aspects of her treatment, highlighted potential symptoms, and spotlighted emerging treatments. “There was that real sense of taking people on every step of her cancer journey, the highs and the lows, with humour, compassion, humility, honesty,” Mitchell said. On her blog, Bowelbabe, and through social media, James provided often-humorous updates on her treatment. She also wrote two books, F*** You Cancer: How to Face the Big C, Live Your Life and Still be Yourself and the forthcoming How to Live When You Could Be Dead.

James brought that same tone to the podcast when it began in 2018. She co-hosted the podcast originally with Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland. “You think you have cancer and you think your life is over, but doing things like the podcast has given me purpose back, made me realize the impact you can have on another person, saving another life, or making somebody not feel alone”, James said on her final episode, which ran in May, 2022. One of James’ talents was making people feel comfortable talking about the symptoms of bowel cancer, Edwards said. “It’s something people were embarrassed to talk about to their GP, but they found ways of making that much, much easier.”

James connected just as easily with people when the podcast mic was off, said Antonia Dalmahoy, the Managing Director of the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity in London, UK. “She was incredibly supportive to other patients. She would sit quietly next to other people in a chemo chair and talk to them,” Dalmahoy said. A prolific campaigner for cancer-related charities, James started the Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK at the same time she announced she was stopping active cancer treatment. She set the initial goal at £250 000, but quickly exceeded that. The fund has now raised more than £7 million, with the money set to support Cancer Research UK, Bowel Cancer UK, and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. “It’s a hugely significant amount of money that will not only increase our scientific understanding and knowledge of cancer, but help us better understand how to diagnose and treat bowel cancer and ultimately save lives,” Mitchell said. In establishing the fund, James wrote that she wanted to support “clinical trials and research into personalized medicine that could result in new treatments for cancer patients”. According to Dalmahoy, “she was keenly interested in personalized medicine and how that focus could shape the future of bowel cancer research”. Some of the funds are also tipped for awareness-raising campaigns, like Bowel Cancer UK’s Never Too Young initiative.

In May, 2022, James became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. “She captured the heart of the nation. Her energy, her openness, her willingness to show exactly what it was like going through cancer,” Dalmahoy said. James is survived by her husband, Sebastien Bowen, their children, Eloise and Hugo, and her parents, Heather and Alistair James.

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