Life After Diagnosis with Deborah James AKA @Bowelbabe
Since being diagnosed aged 35 with stage 4 bowel cancer in December 2016, Deborah James has gone from deputy head to bestselling author, broadcaster and campaigner for Bowel Cancer UK and Cancer Research UK. She talks about stats, symptoms to look out for, and how to support yourself or a loved one through cancer.
How did your bowel cancer diagnosis come about?
I’d been pooing blood, on and off, for about six months. I was tired, my bowel habits had changed and I was losing weight. I went to the doctor for some blood tests and everything came back normal. It was only when I had a colonoscopy done that a 6.5cm tumour was found in my bowel, followed by seven lung tumours on the scans. It wasn’t good: I had stage 4 bowel cancer. Fewer than eight per cent of people survive for even five years when it’s caught at this stage. Crucially, when caught at an early stage, more than 90 per cent survive.
What would you like other people to look for?
More than 42,000 people are diagnosed each year with bowel cancer and 16,000 will die from it. But while it’s more commonly associated with people over the age of 50, some 2,500 young people are also diagnosed every year – more often at an advanced stage due to missed symptoms. So, if you have any concerns, or have any of the symptoms, please talk to your doctor.
Has your life totally changed since the diagnosis?
My life has been turned entirely upside down. I’ve had to find a way to live while undergoing treatment, and how to deal with not being sure if I even have a future. I’ve had five major operations and 21 rounds of chemotherapy and CyberKnife treatment. I’m still having treatment – all in the quest to buy me more time. I gave up my job as a deputy headteacher and I’m now a broadcaster and writer. I have a weekly column in The Sun, ‘Things Cancer Made Me Say’, and I’ve recently published a bestselling book, F*** You Cancer. I also host an award-winning podcast on Radio 5 Live: You, Me and the Big C. It’s amazing what you can do when cancer enters your life.
Tell us about the charities you’re involved with.
When I was first diagnosed, I started tweeting about my illness, and the CEO of Bowel Cancer UK, Deborah Alsina, reached out to me and swept me up into their community of support. She and the team are always at the end of the phone, and they are passionate about raising the profile and awareness of bowel cancer, with the ultimate aim of stopping people dying from the disease. They run a campaign called ‘Never Too Young’ to help fund specific awareness and research into young people with bowel cancer. I also support Cancer Research UK, because I’m passionate about research making a difference to people like me. I had the privilege of recently visiting the main research laboratories at the Francis Crick Institute. I was blown away by the passion and drive of the researchers to find a way to ensure more people can live longer with cancer. I’ve seen first-hand the difference this research can make, having recently just undergone CyberKnife treatment. This very targeted type of radiotherapy is not widely available across the UK, but it’s hopefully controlling my otherwise inoperable tumour.
What are the best ways to bolster the work of these charities?
I’d absolutely recommend getting your running trainers on or signing up for a challenge. There are many events up and down the country where you can fundraise while getting fit. I recently ran a half marathon, ten days after my CyberKnife treatment. If I can do it, there’s really no excuse! If physical challenges aren’t for you, then there are many other ways you can support, however. Check out bowelcanceruk.org.uk and cancerresearchuk.org for ideas.
How have you found the cancer community? Has it been a source of support for you?
Absolutely. The online cancer community is my extended family. Which makes it very hard when someone dies. I met my late colleague Rachael Bland (who was the founder of our podcast) through Twitter. It was heartbreaking to record with her when she knew her cancer had become too aggressive to cure. She sadly died in September, leaving behind her two-year-old son Freddie. I was devastated and had to dig deep to pick myself up, knowing I could be next.
What made you want to write your new book?
I wanted to tell people they are not alone, even when it’s 3am and their demons are visiting. I wanted to let those going through it know that even though cancer is rubbish, just admitting that the mental side (and physical) is a challenge is the first step. Knowing too that although it might have to become a part of your life, it doesn’t have to become your whole life is helpful. It’s also about understanding what we do and don’t have control over, and accepting that it’s not a battle to be won or lost. You can’t ‘fight’ your own cancer, but you can listen to your body, nourish it well, exercise and look after your mental wellbeing. That is half of the battle.
Any tips for helping a loved one through cancer?
Listen, cry and laugh with them. Remember the person they were before they got cancer; they are still them. More people will live for ten years after diagnosis than will die from it, so offer hope but also be realistic. Please don’t ever tell someone ‘you can fight this’, just know they are already doing their very best.
Tune in to our podcast Wellness with Liz; F*** you cancer with Deborah James.
You can follow Deborah on Instagram @bowelbabe and buy her book, F*** You Cancer: How to face the big C, live your life and still be yourself (£9.99, Vermillion).