Dame Deborah James: who was bowel cancer campaigner who died aged 40, what were symptoms, and tributes

Deborah James said she had a “gut instinct something wasn’t right” before her bowel cancer diagnosis

Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

Close friends and family have bid farewell to Dame Deborah James during an intimate private service in west London.

McFly star Tom Fletcher and wife Giovanna, Lorraine Kelly and Gaby Roslin were among the attendees at St Mary’s Church in Barnes on Wednesday afternoon (20 July).

The podcast host and mother of two, who became known as Bowelbabe, her social media handle, died last month aged 40 after being diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016.

The service saw her husband Sebastien deliver a eulogy while their children Hugo and Eloise both read poems.

After the service, the family left the church with bowed heads for a private wake, while Dame Deborah’s coffin was carried away by car.

The cancer fund she set up has now broken the £7 million mark after thousands of pounds were donated following her death.

The podcast host and mother-of-two died became an icon for her outspoken activism in raising awareness for the disease, after launching the popular BBC podcast ‘You, Me and the Big C’, and was know as Bowelbabe, her social media handle.

In early May, she announced she had created The Bowelbabe Fund with Cancer Research UK when she revealed she had stopped active treatment and was seeing out her final days at her parents’ home in Woking.

At the time she made what she believed to be an optimistic target of £250,000, but within four days she had raised more than 16 times this and the total has since increased to more than £7 million.

Dame Deborah has since been remembered by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, charities, politicians, celebrities and many whose lives have been affected by cancer since her death.

Her family shared the news on her Instagram, where she regularly updated her followers on her cancer journey.

BBC presenter Deborah James has told fans she doesn’t know “how long I’ve got left” (Photo: Deborah James / bowelbabe Instagram)BBC presenter Deborah James has told fans she doesn’t know “how long I’ve got left” (Photo: Deborah James / bowelbabe Instagram)
BBC presenter Deborah James has told fans she doesn’t know “how long I’ve got left” (Photo: Deborah James / bowelbabe Instagram)

What did her family say?

Sharing the sad new on Instagram, Dame Deborah’s family updated her followers to let them know that she had lost her battle with bowel cancer.

The statement read: “We are deeply saddened to announce the death of Dame Deborah James; the most amazing wife, daughter, sister, mummy. Deborah passed away peacefully today, surrounded by her family.

“Deborah, who many of you will know as Bowelbabe, was an inspiration and we are incredibly proud of her and her work and commitment to charitable campaigning, fundraising and her endless efforts to raise awareness of cancer that touched so many lives.

“Deborah shared her experience with the world 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.

“We thank you for giving us time in private as a family, and we look forward to continuing Deborah’s legacy long into the future through the Bowel Babe fund.

“Thank you for playing your part in her journey, you are all incredible. “And a few final things from Deborah…“find a life worth enjoying; take risks; love deeply; have no regrets; and always, always have rebellious hope. And finally, check your poo – it could just save your life.” x”

Who has paid tribute to her?

Among those paying tribute to Dame Deborah James was Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab who described her as a “huge inspiration” during Prime Minister’s Questions.

Standing in for Boris Johnson while he attends a Nato summit in Madrid, Mr Raab praised the podcaster and bowel cancer campaigner, for raising millions for charity and inspiring others during her final months.

He told the Commons: “I know that the thoughts of the whole House will be with the family and friends of Dame Deborah James following the news of her death.

“I lost my father at a young age to cancer, I will know first-hand the pain that her family must be feeling, but we also know that Dame Deborah was a huge inspiration to so many and raised millions to help others affected by cancer.”

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner offered her condolences, saying: “Can I also share with the Deputy Prime Minister his deepest condolences and his personal experience, as we mourn the loss of Dame Deborah James, who fearlessly campaigned to inspire so many.

“I’m absolutely sure there’s no doubt that she saved the lives of many more.”

Meanwhile, also paying tribute was the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Dame Deborah’s damehood was personally conferred by William in early May during a surprise visit to her parents’ house

He and Kate said in personal signed message on Twitter: “We are so sad to hear the heartbreaking news about Dame Deborah. Our thoughts are with her children, her family and her loved ones.

“Deborah was an inspirational and unfalteringly brave woman whose legacy will live on. W & C”

Who is Deborah James?

Deborah James was a former deputy head teacher turned cancer campaigner from London.

She had written for and featured in a variety of publications including The Sunday Times, The Sun, Daily Mail, The Times, Grazia, Women’s Health and Marie Claire, and the Independent.

She also appeared as a regular co-host on Talk Radio and BBC radio London, and has featured and presented for BBC Breakfast, Lorraine, Sky News, Victoria Derbyshire, Stand up to Cancer and The One Show.

Dame Deborah also penned a bestselling book titled “F*** You Cancer”, which is a self-help guide to living your best life with cancer, and is presenter of the BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C.

She was married to Sebastien Bowen, a banker at Pomona Capital, and she leaves behind two children - Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12.

She was also honoured with a damehood last month after raising more than £7 million for charity after setting up a Just Giving page to raise funds for clinical trials, research, and increase awareness of the disease.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “If ever an honour was richly deserved, this is it. Deborah has been an inspiration and her honesty, warmth and courage has been a source of strength to so many people.

“Through her tireless campaigning and by so openly sharing her experience she has not only helped in our fight against this terrible disease, she has ensured countless others with the Big C have not felt alone.

“I hope this recognition from Her Majesty – backed I’m sure by the whole country – will provide some comfort to Deborah and her family at this difficult time. My thoughts are with them and Deborah should know she has the country’s love and gratitude.”

Dame Deborah said she was “incredibly honoured” to receive the award and that her Bowel Babe fundraising campaign has “surpassed all expectations.

When was she diagnosed with bowel cancer?

Dame Deborah was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016 and has kept her nearly 300,000 Instagram followers up to date with her treatments ever since, sharing candid posts about her progress and diagnosis.

On 14 December 2021, she marked five years since her diagnosis and said in a post: “I’m fully aware I shouldn’t be alive to write this today”.

What symptoms did she have?

Dame Deborah said her symptoms began with weight loss, passing blood, going to the toilet more regularly than normal, and feeling tired. She sought medical advice after admitting she had a “sixth sense” that something was wrong.

The NHS says that symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and do not necessarily make you feel ill.

More than 90% of people with the disease experience one of the following combinations of symptoms:

  • a persistent change in bowel habit – pooing more often, with looser, runnier poos and sometimes tummy (abdominal) pain
  • blood in the poo without other symptoms of piles (haemorrhoids)
  • abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating, sometimes resulting in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and weight loss

Constipation is rarely caused by serious bowel conditions.

The NHS recommends seeing a GP if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more.