Deborah James: ‘Last Year I Was Dying, Now I’ve Been Told I’m Cancer-Free’

Deborah James, 38, tells Anna Silverman about making sense of her ‘text- book-breaking’ test results – but how she is still living one day at a time...

Deborah James: 'Last Year I Was Dying, Now I've Been Told I'm Cancer-Free'

by Anna Silverman |
Updated on

THIS TIME LAST year I was planning my funeral. Imagining a world where your children are growing up without you is the darkest thing I’ve ever had to do. I crumble when I think about it, but it was something I had to do, because statistics say I shouldn’t be alive. In December 2016 I was diagnosed with incurable bowel cancer and told only 8% of people with stage 4 of this disease survive for five years. And yet, last week I received the news that there is no evidence of the disease left in my body.

It’s still hard to register, but right now I’m officially cancer-free. I’m painfully aware that you are only ever as cancer-free as your latest scan, but my oncologist has called my situation ‘rewriting the text book’. Against the odds, I’ve survived longer than anyone thought I would, which is hard to comprehend when you’ve been preparing to die and have already started grieving a future you thought you wouldn’t be a part of.

There, in the Marsden Hospital in London, I burst into tears and felt shocked, numb and weak, trying my hardest to process the news. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so ran 10k home and called my husband, Sebastien. We didn’t jump around and celebrate because we’re used to this roller coaster of bad and good news. You can’t spend too much emotional energy thinking about it. I think it registered with my children (Hugo, 12, and Eloise, 10) but then they carried on with their day – which is exactly what I want. I need them to be resilient because we don’t know what isaround the corner.

Nobody knows why I’m living. It could be one of hundreds of reasons coming together...

Getting any good news is made even more agonising when I think of the dear friends I’ve lost along the way, who were diagnosed around the same time as me but who haven’t survived. None of it makes sense. I watch their families navigate the world without them and the gratitude I feel to still be with mine almost hurts. My late friend Rachael Bland (who co-hosted the BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C with me and Lauren Mahon) was given an 80-90% chance of living when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 – compared to my 8% – but she died in 2018 and here I am, with an empty diary, wondering whether I can dare to start making plans again.

Rachael’s husband, Steve, messaged me when he saw my news and I told him how much I wished Rachael was here with us. He replied, ‘She would have been so proud and would definitely have been celebrating with you.’

Nobody knows why I’m living. It could be one of hundreds of reasons coming together; I wish I could say there was a magic solution, but it’s not black and white or about having access to the best care.

I could be cancer-free forever or it might come back – the truth is, we just don’t know. I’m still going to need to take daily tablets and receive treatment for the rest of my life. But 10 years ago, if I’d had this diagnosis, I wouldn’t be alive. Modern medication is incredible and it’s so exciting how it’s moving us into a new phase. Soon, I hope it will be the norm to live with cancer.

Just like nobody beats HIV or diabetes; you carry on with your life with it in the background – that’s where I think and hope and pray we’re going with this disease. I don’t want to let people down, but I am a bit worried in case my story gives people hope and then my cancer returns. I still don’t dare to believe it could be true. Or maybe I should confront the possibility that I might just live to see my children finish school and become young adults after all. Maybe, just maybe, my cancer story won’t be all that ground-breaking in a decade. Let's hope so.

READ MORE::a['Rachel Made It Possible To Have A Conversation About Cancer And Not Feel Ashamed']{href='' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer'}

READ MORE: 'Your Friendships Change Forever When You Get Cancer'

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us