Author, podcaster and campaigner Deborah James speaks out on how to face the Big C, live your life, and still be yourself
I first interviewed Deborah James when the UK was in the middle of a summer heat wave, and she was on holiday with her family during a break from treatment for stage 4 bowel cancer. We spoke about her upcoming book "F*** You Cancer", her thoughts on mental health, and the upcoming second series of You, Me and the Big C – a Radio 5 podcast she co-hosts with friends Rachael Bland and Lauren Mahon.
Just over six weeks later, Rachael, a brilliant broadcaster who originally came up with the idea for their show, has died, a couple of days after announcing on social media that she had very little time left to live.
During those days, the podcast shot to number one in the charts, and people up and down the country began talking about the impact You, Me and the Big C, and the three friends have had – opening up the conversation about cancer in a way that is accessible, honest, and often hilarious. Deborah and Lauren contributed to a dedicated podcast for Rachael, released the day after she died.
“Since Rachael’s death I’ve gone into overdrive talking about and remembering her,” Deborah wrote in the Sunday Times. “She made it easy to know what to do because she talked about her own mortality. ‘Make the most of every second,’ she ordered. If she could do that when dying, we must do so when granted the gift of living. We knew she would want us to carry on living, but take her with us.”
I’ve listened with absolute admiration as Deborah and Lauren have spoken about their friend. Both women have been the epitome of professionalism, while radiating complete love and pride for Rachael.
Deborah hasn’t always worked in the media – which makes her ability to do this that much more amazing – having an unexpected career change following her cancer diagnosis in late 2016.
Back then, Deborah was a deputy head teacher, training for headship, working 12-hour days, and a busy mum of two. After receiving her diagnosis, she decided to leave teaching, but this decision hit her hard.
“I know for some people not having to work sounds like the ideal situation, but I mourned the loss of my job,” Deborah recalls. “It sent me into a massive depression. As a deputy head teacher, I was a professional forward planner; I always knew what was happening a year in advance, and suddenly I didn’t know what was happening from hour to hour on a daily basis.”
It’s a period she’s very honest about in her book, acknowledging she didn’t realise she was depressed at first. “When I look back, I understand that I was unjustifiably blaming cancer for everything,” she says. “I was sleeping all the time – not because I was tired, but because I had no ‘drive’. I never saw highs in my mood, I was drinking – a lot – I was avoiding people.
“But then I found writing, and it brought me out of the darkness. It was my way of talking about my fears and emotions, and making sense of everything in my mind. I found pleasure in helping others through my words, and that in itself helped me.”
Now, alongside the podcast, she also writes a column for The Sun, and by the time you read this, her book "F*** You Cancer" will have been published.
All of this has been achieved while in almost continual treatment. “When I started writing I was knee-deep in treatment, and was told I needed a couple more operations, then I was in remission,” Deborah says. “Following that, I was told the cancer had come back again – so depending on what chapter you’re reading, I was in very different stages of my journey.”
In the book, Deborah shares her journey so far, along with practical knowledge about chemo, side effects, and suggestions for talking to your children. She shares the kind of stuff you won’t read on NHS websites.
“It’s about celebrating the small things that really matter in life,” she notes, “not just looking for the big, blow out finale of treatment – the one stage-fourers can only dream about. It’s not about lowering expectations, but being realistic when cancer is coming at you full steam ahead.”
It’s invaluable advice from someone who is treading the path that the reader may be too. Deborah wants others to know that there is a route forward that doesn’t mean losing yourself, and she’s happy to show them the way. In the introduction she writes: “You may be in the trenches, but let me take your hand and we’ll be in this together.”
Her favourite chapters are the ones where her children have contributed suggestions, and those where she focuses on cancer and mental health – a subject she wants to elevate.
“When you’re having treatment for cancer, the physical side is explained in great detail,” Deborah says. “You’re hand-held through the entire process, but nobody talks about what it’s like to be in hospital for a week, or the mental impact of treatment.”
And Deborah knows that looks can be deceiving when it comes to coping mentally, too. “Just because you’re not crying, it doesn’t mean you’re not struggling,” she says. “I believe that if everyone was a bit more honest about how they are doing, it would all be much easier.”
This is where her Instagram account blazes a trail. Among the posts of holidays, family time, and nights out, Deborah shares understandably low moments – the many realities of her day-to-day life, including cancer.
As well this honest approach, Deborah credits counselling, exercise, her podcast friends, family, and the community she has met online, for keeping her positive.
“The online community I’ve met has been crucial for my mental health and wellbeing. When you have bowel cancer, you spend a lot of time talking about the intricacies of poo – and that can get really boring for friends and family. But online, there will be someone matching you stage for stage, and when you’re down, you can lift one another up. It’s like you have a team of cheerleaders.”
Through all the campaigning, content, and personal experiences Deborah shares, it’s fair to say that she’s responsible for championing a better way forward for many others, especially with the arrival of "F*** You Cancer". I can imagine that anyone coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis will feel a bit more armed for what is next with this book – and the podcast – in their arsenal.
'F You Cancer: How To Face The Big C, Live Your Life And Still Be Yourself' (Vermillion, £9.99). Follow Deborah on Instagram @bowelbabe