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Obituary: Deborah James, broadcaster, teacher and writer who worked hard to demystify the bowel cancer from which she suffered

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Deborah James and her dog Winston

Deborah James and her dog Winston

Deborah James with Steve Bland. Picture by Ian West

Deborah James with Steve Bland. Picture by Ian West

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Deborah James and her dog Winston

Deborah James, who has died from bowel cancer aged 40, was a deputy head teacher, podcast presenter and author who published on social media under the name Bowelbabe, aiming to debunk the myth that the disease is confined to smokers, meat eaters and old men. S he also presented the award-winning BBC podcast You, Me and the Big C with the journalist Rachael Bland and the lifestyle blogger Lauren Mahon, both of whom had breast cancer.

Deborah James was a healthy, 35-year-old, non-smoking vegetarian who often went for 10km runs when she noticed blood in her stool in 2016. She was slow to seek treatment, but when she did her GP suggested that, given her age, it was probably irritable bowel syndrome. Ten days before Christmas that year came the diagnosis she had a particularly aggressive 5.5cm tumour in her bowel. 

She took part in countless drug trials that bought her precious time. She had 17 tumours removed, her lungs were deflated, her body was dissected for thoracic surgery, and she underwent cyberknife surgery, a non-invasive alternative to traditional surgery. After one gruelling operation doctors feared that she had contracted sepsis.

The Bowelbabe blog started as a way of updating friends and the school community about her progress. Soon she was attracting a wider following and was approached to become a co-host of the You, Me and the Big C podcast, which was likened by one critic to “listening to three raucous friends in the pub”. It rode high in the iTunes charts, rising to No 1 just before Rachael Bland’s death in 2018.

In 2017 she began a weekly online column for The Sun newspaper.She also documented her experience in her book F*** You Cancer: How to face the big C, live your life and still be yourself (2018), a breezy and irreverent guide for new members of the “cancer club” that is rich in detail about the change in bodily functions that can be expected during chemotherapy.

Two years ago she ran the London Marathon to raise funds for the Royal Marsden hospital, where she was being treated, but was disappointed not to be well enough to repeat the exercise last year. She was also the driving force behind the daytime television presenter Lorraine Kelly’s No Butts campaign to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of the disease, and in 2019 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of East Anglia.

Although she understood why the government threw everything at the pandemic, she could not understand why the same was not happening with cancer. She wrote to Boris Johnson several times, but he did not write back; ditto Sajid Javid, the British health secretary.

She published a second book, How to Live When You Could be Dead (2021), urging her readers to “live in the now and to value one day at a time”.

Deborah Anne James was born on October 1 1981, one of three children of Alistair James and his wife Heather, and brought up in Woking, Surrey. She read Economics at the University of Exeter, and went into teaching. Eventually she became deputy head teacher at Salesian School in Chertsey, Surrey, specialising in computer science and e-learning, before being parachuted in to help turn around Matthew Arnold School in Staines-upon-Thames.

She helped to lead national research into “growth mindsets” in schools and was on a fast-track scheme to become a head teacher.

In May 2022, Deborah James announced that she was receiving hospice-at-home care, and in the next 48 hours more than £3m (€3.5m) was raised for her Bowelbabe Fund.

Two days later she was appointed DBE; her damehood was conferred by Prince William at her parents’ home. Within a few weeks the sum raised had passed £6m.

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In 2008 she married Sebastien Bowen, a French banker working in private equities. He survives her with their two children, Hugo and Eloise.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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