One of the world’s colorectal cancer heroes died earlier this week. Dame Deborah James, aka Bowel Babe, was a cancer advocate, author, podcaster, and journalist among other things. She was diagnosed 6 years ago in 2016 with stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer and it was predicted that she would not survive to the five year mark.
Deborah lived in the UK and was a teacher and a mother of two. Like so many people who are stunned by an early diagnosis of cancer, she was just living her glorious life until the day of her diagnosis. Then, everything changed.
I remember finding her shortly after my own diagnosis. She has been a bright light for me since the beginning. Deborah was never afraid to say the things that everyone else is thinking. She said, “This sucks.” She wrote, “F##k Cancer.” She talked about living and enjoying each moment while at the same time being completely terrified. She admitted when she felt down and she made it okay for us to talk about mental health during and after cancer treatment. She had no problem talking about poo and even wore a poo emoji costume to raise awareness about the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer.
Deborah was cool and glam and sang loudly while dancing with her IV pole. I felt like we were friends. I wanted to tag around with her at parties.
Tobias was consoling me after I found out she had passed yesterday morning. He said, “Did you know her, Mom?” and I replied, “Yes. And I think she liked one of my comments on her facebook once.” We had to laugh. That is an example of the kind of person she was; everyone who followed her felt seen by her. She was just so real and authentic.
I listened to every episode of her podcast, “You, Me and the Big C,” while I was doing my radiation treatments. I watched her experience unfold as I went through mine. She kept me company on long rides to St. John’s. As I healed, her cancer grew back again and again. She was the recipient of so many different types of treatments and never failed to share her appreciation for her hardworking health care team.
As I grieve for Deborah and her family and friends today I cry for the experience of every person who is touched by cancer. I give myself a moment to rail about the total random nature of this illness which none of us can predict.
And then, like Deb did so many times, I carry on.
In her six years of living with cancer and campaigning for awareness and funding, Deborah raised millions of pounds, and has been instrumental in having started the process to lower the screening age for colorectal cancer from 60 to 50 in the UK. After she announced she was moving from active treatment to hospice care, Prince William visited her at home and bestowed her with a Damehood. That is how impactful her work is.
I live in a beautiful province with the highest incidence of colorectal cancer in the country. Screening, awareness and early detection saves lives. Younger adults (like me and Deborah) who aren’t yet involved in screening (which kicks in at age 50 here in Newfoundland and Labrador) need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer. This is why I started writing a blog and speaking out, and seeing Deborah’s impact gave me the courage.
Thank-you, Dame Deborah James. I will miss you.