For more than five years, Deborah James, the presenter of the BBC podcast You, Me and the Big C, has put a spotlight on a cancer otherwise left in the dark, and with such authority that she was awarded a damehood late on Thursday.
With candour and humour, James has kept her co-hosts, listeners and social media followers up to date with her treatment for bowel cancer, even going so far as to dress up in a ‘poo suit’ in a BBC recording studio.
Bowel cancer can be a tricky subject matter. Although it is the fourth most common and second deadliest cancer in the UK, people shy away from talking about it owing to embarrassment about symptoms. The podcast has met with praise and admiration from charities, experts and patients.
When Louise Bolotin came across James’s story she “felt some solidarity, because she’s at the stage where she’s at hospice at home care and that will be what happens to me as well.” Bolotin, 60, received a diagnosis in January after going to A&E with constant vomiting. Doctors discovered that the cancer in her bowel had spread to her liver, chest and lungs.
“I had no idea that I had cancer, so when I was told not only do I have cancer but it’s terminal and it has already spread, that was a bit of a shock,” Bolotin said. Of James, she added: “We’re both in the same situation really. Both facing end of life.”
James, who was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in 2016, said on Monday that she was under hospice at home care and “spending my time surrounded by my family”. By Friday, her Bowelbabe Fund, with shared links to charities including Cancer Research UK, Bowel Cancer UK and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, had raised more than £4m.
“Over the last five years, I’ve campaigned, I’ve spoken about awareness, I’ve shared my story, my reason for laughs, for giggles, for showing that you can live with cancer,” James told the BBC. “Before I die the one thing I knew I wanted to do was set up a fund that can continue working on things that gave me life.”
James is a patron of Bowel Cancer UK, among other charities. After her news on Monday, traffic to the charity’s website surged to nine times that of a typical day. Genevieve Edwards, the charity’s chief executive, said: “She has this incredible ability to motivate people and get people talking about the signs and symptoms.”
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who donated to James’s fund, called her efforts to raise awareness and end the stigma around bowel cancer “inspiring”, and Boris Johnson said the damehood was richly deserved. “Deborah has been an inspiration and her honesty, warmth and courage has been a source of strength to so many people,” he tweeted.
Prof David Cunningham, a consultant medical oncologist and director of clinical research at the Royal Marsden hospital in London, said he had no doubt James “has saved lives by encouraging people to see a GP about any worrying symptoms”.
Bowel cancer predominantly affects people over 60, an individual’s risk also depends on their sex, genetics and lifestyle factors. When detected early it can be tackled with surgery, chemotherapy or other therapies.
In England, guidelines call for testing for people over 50, including at-home faecal testing (FIT) or examinations done at clinics or hospitals. Symptoms include blood in stools, persistent change in bowel habits, stomach pains or lumps, sudden fatigue and weight loss.
When the Guardian spoke to Bolotin, a retired freelance journalist and editor, she was travelling to Edinburgh to see a group of childhood friends for the last time.
“I’m completely at peace with my decision and I’m expecting what’s coming, and in the meantime I’m just trying to live my life as best as I can,” she said. For others, she advised: “Keep an eye out for symptoms, but bear in mind that symptoms are not always obvious.”