Motherhood Interview: Deborah James talks parenting, poo and podcasts.
You, Me and the Big C presenter Deborah James tells ParentFolk’s Jade Wright how her children have motivated the fight of her life and why we should all be talking about our poo.
It’s one of every parent’s worst nightmares, but Deborah James was determined to tell her children the truth: she had stage four bowel cancer and the prognosis wasn’t good.
“Cancer isn’t a swear-word in our house,” explains the 36-year-old mum of two. “It’s become part of our lives. It’s two years now. I’m very aware of how lucky I am to still be here. I’ve already outlived my prognosis.
“My son says ‘you shouldn’t still be alive,’ and he’s right. They know I am probably going to die. It’s a lot for them to take in but it would be a lot worse if I kept it a secret from them.”
Deborah admits that talking to her children, Hugo, 11 and Eloise, eight, about her cancer has been difficult.
“Most women with the kind of cancer I have don’t live past a year, so we had to have that conversation,” she says. “If I get another year I know I will be very lucky.
“I had an 8% chance of living five years when I was diagnosed. I’ve already beaten the odds and I would love to continue beating the odds, but that isn’t in my hands.”
Deborah was working as a deputy headteacher, training to be a head, when she started to feel unwell.
“I was working 16 hour days and that takes its toll, but I still thought something wasn’t right,” she recalls. “I was losing weight and my bowel habits had changed. There was blood in my poo.
“I went to the doctors and they sent me away saying it was haemorrhoids, then when I went back they suspected Crohn’s disease. Eventually I got to see a specialist and had a colonoscopy. I asked if it was bowel cancer but I didn’t hit any of the criteria. I was young, fit and vegetarian.
My consultant said if he had a list of possible diagnosis, cancer wouldn’t be on it. Sadly he was wrong.
“It was stage four cancer by the time they found out. It had spread to my lungs. It took six months for them to find out what was wrong and all that time the clock was ticking.”
According to Bowel Cancer UK, more than nine out of 10 people diagnosed with stage one bowel cancer survive five years or more. By stage four, that figure is less than one in 10.
Just before Christmas 2016 Deborah got the news she’d been dreading and together with husband Sebastien they told Hugo and Eloise what was happening. As the New Year began, the family prepared for surgery.
“I’ve had operations on my bowel and on my lungs,” says Deborah. “It’s something you kind of get used to. You have to.”
Deborah started blogging about her experiences and set up Twitter and Instagram, under the name Bowel Babe.
“Essentially, I wanted to talk about poo,” she laughs. “Poo is a really important indicator of health. People are often embarrassed to talk about their bowels. Women are probably better now about checking their breast although I think there are still issues around diagnosis for a lot of the gynaecological cancers. But people forget about poo, and bowel cancer is the second biggest killer in terms of cancer.”
As well as raising awareness of the warning signs of cancer, Deborah has plenty of other passions too (“wine, and clothes, and running, and shoes and lipstick – oh and did I mention wine?!”) Another being the beautiful photos she posts of herself – in gorgeous dresses – enjoying holidays with Sebastien, Hugo and Eloise, all smiling at the camera.
“My son doesn’t really want to be on Instagram at the moment whereas my daughter loves it and wants to be on it all the time,” she laughs. “They like it when I talk about poo – they think that’s very funny. But it’s not all doom and gloom – life goes on and we want to enjoy every minute.”
Some of the pictures also feature Deborah’s friends and colleagues, Rachael Bland and Lauren Mahon. Together they created You, Me and the Big C, a Radio 5 Live podcast about what it’s really like to live with cancer.
Their matter-of-fact, bright and breezy discussions about the realities of living with cancer encouraged others to speak openly about their illness, giving a much-needed forum. The podcast reached No 1 in the iTunes chart earlier this month, just as Rachael announced she had just days to live.
“It’s nice to think Rachael knew that before she died,” says Deborah. “It’s very cool to have done that, and now the challenge is to take it forward.
“Rachael was an amazing broadcaster and a great friend. There’s no way we would ever replace her, but we’d like to keep the podcast going to continue her work. She was one of those kind of people who made things happen.
“Cancer can make you feel very helpless but I’ve been lucky to have a voice with it and to be able to hopefully help some other people. You have to make some use out of the rubbish situation.”
Early diagnosis is key in all cancers, it seems.
“The best thing we can all do is try to catch the symptoms early,” she says. “In terms of bowel cancer it’s about knowing your body.
“The main things to watch out for are:
• Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo
• A change in bowel habits
• Unexplained weight loss
• Extreme tiredness
• A pain or lump in your tummy
“But everybody is totally different so if you don’t feel right don’t go away until you have an answer.”
Deborah has recently had the news she dreaded – after her surgery and chemotherapy the cancer has returned. Last week she returned to hospital for more surgery. She’s chronicling her treatment in newspapers and magazines, alongside campaigning tirelessly to spread the message about early diagnosis.
“I miss teaching every day,” she says. “If things were different I’d love to go back and become a headteacher, but I’d have to be able to commit to the next five years and in honesty I can’t say I’ll still be here.
“Instead I write from home and I have a lot more flexibility. I still do 12 hours a day but I can juggle things more easily. If I want to be working at 3am that’s OK. I have been massively lucky because I have loads of help from family. I don’t have to do the school run on top of everything else, because I have that support. I don’t shy away from that.
“Everyone asks how do I juggle everything, and I have to be really honest and say I couldn’t do it without the help I get. My advice to anyone with cancer is to take all the help you offered. You can’t do it on your own.”
It’s a hard road ahead, but she is ready for the fight.
She says it very simply: “Seeing Rachael die so bravely was an inspiration, but I still want to live.”
Deborah’s book F*** You Cancer: How to Face the Big C, Live Your Life and Still be Yourself is available to buy now
Follow Deborah’s story at instagram.com/bowelbabe