When I first met Deborah James, she came bounding over to me wearing a big floppy hat, velvet blazer and huge smile. ‘OK, Deborah James has arrived,’ I thought. We were at Euston station, boarding the train to Manchester for our first podcast recording of You, Me And The Big C. Once we started chatting, we didn’t stop for the whole journey. It was the most instant, pure friendship but, in the five and a half years we’ve since been mates, I’ve thought Deb was going to die more times than I can count on one hand.
With cancer there are always scares. There have been many times I’ve been in tears on the phone to my mum, saying, ‘I’m really scared about Deb.’ So, even after she announced on her Instagram (@Bowelbabe) that she has very little time left after being moved to end-of-life care for bowel cancer, it’s hard to let grief overtake you. I know there are no options left, but mourning someone while they’re still alive feels alien. And in the weeks since her announcement, she’s very much been living.
She’s had afternoon tea with Prince William (where she was honoured with a damehood!), attended RHS Chelsea Flower Show to view a rose named after her, and launched a clothing line with In The Style to raise money for her new initiative, Bowel Babe Fund. What’s most incredible about all of this is that Deb has raised more than £6.5 million for Cancer Research UK, which will fund clinical trials and scientific breakthroughs that could save lives.
I had an inkling she would do something like this; she’s a big planner and had been asking questions about my own campaigning platform, GIRLvsCANCER – which just received official charity status. There was no way Deb wasn’t going to do something to create her own legacy, supporting the charities that have always supported her.
Deb has always been mentally strong, even when she’s physically weak. She’s someone you always want to be around, full of energy, straight-talking, funny, crude, cheeky, fabulous. I have so many incredible memories with her – most of which came from our four-hour journeys up to Manchester when we’d sit together putting the world to rights on the way there, drinking wine on the way back.
Deb is still fighting now, but it’s difficult because she doesn’t want to see people while she’s so poorly, so where we’d normally be down the pub having a glass of rosé, we’re not able to celebrate all these achievements of the last few weeks. But, to be honest, it’s incredible we’re getting to celebrate her at all and, crucially, that she’s getting to see it.
I find that, too often, people are honoured after they’re gone. All of these things happen in their name that they’ll never get to see, and I’ve always thought, ‘Why did no one do this or say these things while they were alive?’ To know that you’re leaving this world engulfed in love – isn’t that what we all want? I’m grateful that’s what my girl’s getting, as hard as it is to accept that Deb is eventually going to close her eyes.
To know that you’re leaving this world engulfed in love, isn’t that what we all want?
She’s been really emotional at this outpouring of support – which is very unlike her – and I think it has given the whole family a lot of light in the darkest times. I like to think it’s helped maintain this atmosphere at home where she wants to respond to messages and be part of the world because there’s so much joy. It’s like her swan song – going out in a blaze of glory.
If there’s one thing I know Deb will want everyone to know is: please be body aware. Unfortunately, the state of our NHS isn’t great at the moment and so you need to be persistent with your health. If your bowel habits change, if there’s blood in your stool, or you’ve noticed anything else that doesn’t seem quite right, you must go and get checked by your GP.
If they don’t send you for a referral but you are still seeing warning signs, insist they refer you. Early diagnosis saves lives and, had Deb’s cancer been caught earlier, she would not be in this situation. We all know Deb is amazing, but my lovely friend shouldn’t be facing death at 40 and neither should anyone else. So as much as people are donating and giving their well wishes – and please continue – do give time to yourself and your body, too.