Deborah James: My body can’t continue, says You, Me and the Big C podcast host

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By Joseph Lee & Natasha Preskey

BBC News

Deborah James

Image caption,

Ms James investigated how the NHS managed cancer care during the pandemic for BBC Panorama

Podcast host Deborah James has said she is receiving hospice-at-home care for her bowel cancer and “nobody knows how long I’ve got left”.

The 40-year-old presenter of the BBC’s You, Me and the Big C said she has had a “heart-breaking” six months but is “surrounded by love”.

“My body just can’t continue anymore,” she said in a post on Instagram.

James was diagnosed in 2016 and kept her thousands of followers updated with candid accounts of her treatment.

The former deputy head teacher said a Bowelbabe Fund – named after her online handle – was being set up to fund research into personalised medicine for cancer patients, and to support campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer.

Since going live on Monday evening, the fund has already raised over £1m.

James told her Instagram followers she was “utterly blown away” by the response to her appeal. She wrote: “I never in my wildest dreams thought we’d be waking up to this total 12 hours later. I’m actually crying!”

In December, the mother-of-two reflected on the five years that had passed since she was told she had incurable cancer, saying: “I’m fully aware I shouldn’t be alive to write this today.”

But in a new post on her Instagram page, @bowelbabe, she said she had to deliver “the message I never wanted to write”.

James said her cancer was no longer being actively treated and instead the focus was on ensuring she was not in pain – allowing her to spend time with her “incredible family”, who were all around her.

“Nobody knows how long I’ve got left but I’m not able to walk, I’m sleeping most of the days, and most things I took for granted are pipe dreams,” she said.

“I know we have left no stone unturned. But even with all the innovative cancer drugs in the world or some magic new breakthrough, my body just can’t continue anymore.”

Media caption,

Watch: Deborah James speaks about her diagnosis to raise awareness (May 2019)

The presenter was told she was free of cancer in January 2020, with doctors telling her they could “find no evidence of active disease”, but it returned later the same year.

Writing in her column in the Sun newspaper in December 2020, she said: “I can never relax. I’ve been blindsided by my cancer too many times for that. I can never feel secure, and that comes with so many challenges. I never really feel at peace with it, and I don’t think I ever will.”

James began co-presenting You, Me and the Big C alongside Lauren Mahon and BBC Radio 5 Live newsreader Rachael Bland in 2018, with the show earning praise for its frank discussion of cancer.

They spoke to celebrity guests and addressed practical matters including hair loss, tips for dealing with finances and telling your nearest and dearest.

Bland died at the age of 40 six months after the show launched. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer two years earlier.

Her husband, Steve Bland, took her place on the podcast after she died.

Congratulating James on her fundraiser, Bland wrote on Instagram: “Just so so so proud of this wonderful, inspirational woman that I get to call one of my best friends.”

Bland said the change in James’s condition was “absolutely heartbreaking” but that he would continue to focus on “all the amazing things” she was doing.

“She’s still changing lives and she’s still creating this incredible legacy so we’ve still got her, so we’ll focus on that,” he told the BBC.

If you have been affected by any of these issues in this story you can visit BBC Action Line.

James has been praised for her no-nonsense approach to talking about cancer, and she has shared her experiences of treatment and daily life with her social media followers since her diagnosis.

She has worked to remove the embarrassment factor from bowel cancer, and even shared a video of herself walking down the street dressed as a poo emoji to encourage people to watch out for changes to their bowel movements.

Genevieve Edwards, chief executive of the charity Bowel Cancer UK (of which James is a patron), said the number of lives that the podcaster has saved and will continue to save with her awareness and fundraising was “nothing short of incredible”.

She told the BBC: “We’re all desperately, desperately sad to have this news and our hearts are with Deborah and her family at this time.”

Stacey Heale, 42, was put in touch with James by the charity after her husband Greg was diagnosed with bowel cancer in the same week as the presenter.

She says: “I was young. I was 36 when he was diagnosed. We’d just had two babies. And I was like, ‘Who on earth do I talk to?'”

Image source, Instagram/@stacey_heale

Image caption,

Stacey Heale’s husband Greg was diagnosed with bowel cancer in the same week as Deborah James

The mother-of-two says she and James began exchanging emails about Greg’s treatment and became friends.

“What she’s so good at is showing people how to live with cancer,” she says. “That was always her thing. It was always about living.”

Ms Heale’s husband later died on James’s 40th birthday and Ms Heale sent James a message on the day urging her to keep enjoying life.

“I just said to her: ‘Keep living, keep having fun.'”

What are bowel cancer symptoms?

  • A persistent change in bowel habit – going more often, with looser stools and sometimes tummy pain
  • Blood in the stools without other symptoms, such as piles
  • Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating

Radio 1 presenter Adele Roberts, who is herself undergoing treatment for bowel cancer, tweeted, telling James she was “an inspiration and a hero” and thanking her for her work to raise awareness.

Roberts had surgery for bowel cancer six months ago. She is now on her final cycle of chemotherapy and has returned to the station’s weekend breakfast show.

In her Instagram post on Monday, James said: “Right now for me it’s all about taking it a day at a time, step by step and being grateful for another sunrise.

“My whole family are around me and we will dance through this together, sunbathing and laughing (I’ll cry!!) at every possible moment!”

She thanked her online followers for “playing your part in my journey”, before signing off with the words: “No regrets. Enjoy life x”

‘They know the door is open’

In the most recent episode of You, Me and the Big C, released in March, James spoke about how her illness has affected her mental health, and what it has been like for her two school-aged children.

James explained her son and daughter had accessed counselling through their schools but had now paused sessions.

“In true fashion of my children, they went to their first session, went to their second session, I think, and then Eloise was like: ‘Mummy, I just wanna play hockey’ and Hugo hasn’t turned up again,” she said.

“They know the door’s open. I now feel reassured that there is support if they want it.”

James has recorded a new edition of You, Me and The Big C which will be available on BBC Sounds from Wednesday morning.