Dame Deborah James: Tributes paid to 'unfalteringly brave' cancer campaigner

By Natasha Preskey
BBC News

  • Published
Dame Deborah James and the Duke of CambridgeImage source, Deborah James
Image caption,
The cancer campaigner received a damehood for her fundraising work

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have paid tribute to cancer campaigner, broadcaster and former teacher, Dame Deborah James, who has died aged 40.

They joined celebrities, politicians and people living with cancer in praising the "inspirational and unfalteringly brave" mother-of-two.

She had been receiving end-of-life care for bowel cancer at home, and had raised millions for cancer research.

Dame Deborah's family said she was "amazing" and an "inspiration".

They announced her death in a post on her Instagram page. "We are deeply saddened to announce the death of Dame Deborah James; the most amazing wife, daughter, sister, mummy," it said.

She passed away peacefully surrounded by her family.

Her family said Dame Deborah shared her experience of cancer to "raise awareness, break down barriers, challenge taboos and change the conversation around cancer".

"Even in her most challenging moments, her determination to raise money and awareness was inspiring."

On Wednesday evening, Dame Deborah topped £7m of funds raised for research into specialised medicine for cancer patients.

An intimate tribute to Dame Deborah James. Following her death, we hear from friends, colleagues and fellow cancer patients as they celebrate her life and legacy.

Writing on Twitter, Prince William and Catherine said: "Deborah was an inspirational and unfalteringly brave woman whose legacy will live on."

Speaking from Madrid at a Nato summit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid tribute to Dame Deborah, describing her as "an absolute inspiration".

"I remember reading about her ages ago, just being incredibly moved by her account of her suffering but how it had actually driven her to do so much to raise awareness about bowel cancer," he said.

The host of the BBC's You, Me and the Big C podcast was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016, and was given a damehood in May in recognition of her fundraising.

Prince William visited her at her parents' home in Woking, Surrey, to deliver it. He praised her tireless efforts and thanked her for giving hope to those living with the disease.

For her part, Dame Deborah said William's visit was surreal.

"You can imagine the cleaning antics and preparation went off the scale - but it was all irrelevant because William was so kind," she said.

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

Who gets bowel cancer screening checks?

Screening, run by the NHS, aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage. It involves a home test kit, which looks for hidden blood in poo, being posted to you so you can complete it and send it back.

But it's not available to everyone - only to those age groups most likely to benefit.

Screening happens across the UK.

  • In England, the age is being gradually lowered from over-60s to people aged 50 and over.
  • In Scotland, screening starts from age 50.
  • In Wales, it's for people aged 58-74.
  • In Northern Ireland, it's for people over 60.

If you are outside the screening age group where you live, you should still be aware of what bowel cancer symptoms are and visit your GP if you have any concerns.

Source: NHS UK

Dame Deborah had a no-nonsense approach to talking about cancer, having shared her experiences of treatment and daily life since her diagnosis in 2016.

Signing off her final podcast in May, she said: "Check your poo. Come on. I can't leave on any other word apart from check your poo.

"I still have images of me dancing in poo outfits everywhere. So maybe I should leave on that final word. Check your poo."

A deputy head teacher, she started a cancer blog, before writing for the Sun newspaper and becoming a BBC broadcaster.

But on 9 May she announced that she was no longer receiving active care and did not know how long she had left.

"My body just can't continue any more," she said in a post on Instagram.

Her podcast co-host, Lauren Mahon, said on Instagram "there's only one Deborah James" and asked to be given time beside a broken heart emoji.

In a BBC documentary recorded before her friend's death, Ms Mahon said: "Deb just has this ferocity in her to make a difference and to make sure that no one else suffers the same fate.

"Most people would have just run away from that, but Deb wanted to tell her story so that it wouldn't be anyone else's story," she said.

Dame Deborah also launched a new fund - Bowelbabe - to raise money for research into personalised medicine for cancer patients.

It surpassed £1m in less than 24 hours - smashing her initial goal of £250,000 - and has now raised £7m.

Genevieve Edwards, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, said the former teacher leaves a tremendous legacy behind her.

BBC News presenter George Alagiah, who is living with bowel cancer, recalled speaking to Dame Deborah at the Royal Marsden Hospital.

He said the campaigner answered his questions about the symptoms he might experience with the illness.

He was struck by Dame Deborah's "sheer generosity", he said, and their chat was "typical of what I now know she was capable of doing and did for so many others".

Chef Ryan Riley became friends with Dame Deborah through his project Life Kitchen, which provides cookery lessons for people whose sense of taste has been affected by cancer treatment.

Mr Riley said she offered people hope.

"She would be that voice online that wasn't as scared as they were and I think that really gave a lot of people a bit of comfort in a really difficult time." he said.

The chef said Dame Deborah's frankness forged a connection with people that was necessary to "push the cancer community forward and bring awareness".

Media caption,

Remembering Dame Deborah James: 'One of those special people'

Lizzie Parry, who edited Dame Deborah's column in the Sun newspaper, said: "Even in her final days, as she faced her death, my bonkers, beautiful and bloody-minded friend refused to stop."

TV presenter Lorraine Kelly became emotional as she paid tribute to her on her ITV morning show.

She wore a pink jacket, the campaigner's favourite colour, and a T-shirt featuring the words "Rebellious Hope", which was her slogan.

Fighting back tears, she said: "We knew this was going to happen, but it still doesn't seem quite real."

She interviewed Steve Bland, who was a friend of Dame Deborah and was married to her former podcast co-host, BBC Radio 5 Live newsreader Rachael Bland, who died of cancer in 2018.

He told Lorraine that Tuesday night was "very surreal" and "very numb".

Bland said the fact that Dame Deborah had known for five and a half years that her cancer was incurable made what she had achieved during that period "even more remarkable".

  • You can listen to Dame Deborah's final You, Me and the Big C podcast on BBC Sounds

Additional reporting by Jasmine Andersson and Charley Adams.

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