Dame Deborah James

Dame Deborah James, also known as Bowelbabe

Since she was diagnosed with bowel cancer in December 2016, Dame Deborah James, also known as Bowelbabe, has shared her story with the world.

A deputy headteacher prior to her diagnosis, Deborah has been detailing her cancer experience through her own blog, a column ‘Things Cancer Made Me Say in The Sun, and as a co-host of the BBC Radio 5 live podcast You, Me and the Big C, alongside her charitable campaigning.

On the 9th of May, Deborah announced that she was moving to at-home hospice care.

In her announcement, she launched the Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK, asking that ‘next time you pop for a coffee or grab a drink with a friend, please consider donating the cost of one extra for [her]’. She set a target of raising £250,000.

In the two weeks since, Deborah raised over twenty times that amount, over £6.5 million, over £7.5 million when including Gift Aid. At its peak, 17 donations were processed per second.

The Bowelbabe Fund will support causes and projects that Deborah is passionate about, like funding clinical trials and research into personalised medicine that could result in new treatments for cancer patients, including projects in collaboration with partners like The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden, and supporting campaigns to raise awareness of cancer, including Bowel Cancer UK’s Never Too Young campaign.

In recognition for everything Deborah has achieved she was awarded a damehood, has had a rose named in her honour, which will be displayed at the Chelsea Flower Show, and her second book, How To Live When You Could Be Dead, recently topped the Amazon bestseller list on pre-orders alone.

Cancer in the public eye

The outpouring of goodwill in response to Deborah’s story has been incredible, but it isn’t the first time someone’s cancer experience has made an impact on the public.

When Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, breast cancer screening attendance sharply increased in what was colloquially known as the ‘Kylie effect’. Similarly, cervical screening attendance rose after reality star Jade Goody’s cervical cancer diagnosis in 2008.

“When a high-profile person is diagnosed, or becomes seriously ill with cancer, this has an undeniable impact on the general public,” says Martin Ledwick, our Head Information Nurse, who runs the charity’s nurses helpline.

“It helps to heighten awareness in the general public of the importance of early diagnosis of cancer, often prompting people to get any symptoms they have checked, and attending screenings when they are invited.”

At 35 when she was diagnosed, Deborah was much younger than the average person diagnosed with bowel cancer. More than 40% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are diagnosed in people over 75.

As such, she has been active in supporting Bowel Cancer UK’s Never Too Young campaign.

“For people affected by cancer, and cancer patients themselves, stories like Deborah’s can help to show them that they are not alone,” Ledwick adds.

“Deborah is not a celebrity, she is one of us, but she became well known because of her campaigning and generosity in sharing her story. Undoubtedly, Deborah’s honesty will have saved lives by helping people to talk openly about their cancer.”

Capturing public interest

The incredible support for the Bowelbabe Fund isn’t the only marker of Deborah’s impact.

In the week after her announcement, mentions of Bowelbabe on twitter increased by a staggering 8000%, and searches for the terms ‘bowelbabe’ and ‘bowel cancer’ went up 280% on the previous week*.

In addition, our bowel cancer webpages have seen three times more new visitors compared to the week before, with our bowel cancer symptoms webpage receiving roughly 25,000 more visitors compared to the previous week.

Breaking down the barriers

From the millions raised for the Bowelbabe Fund, to the spike in social media activity surrounding bowel cancer, the reaction to Deborah’s news has been amazing, and a testament to how many people’s lives she has touched.

“Stories like Deborah’s resonate so deeply with us because they allow us to see the person at the centre of a cancer journey, and the highs and lows that they and their family go through, which moves us on a very personal level,” says Michelle Mitchell, our chief executive.

“Through sharing her story with such honesty, humour and compassion Deborah has changed the conversation around cancer for the better.

“She has not only raised awareness of the importance of early diagnosis, but also broken down barriers and challenged taboos around cancer.

“Even in this most challenging time, her determination to raise money and awareness is inspiring. We’re honoured to be supporting Deborah and her family in establishing the Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK.”

Above all else, Deborah has brought bowel cancer, a cancer that is often considered uncomfortable to talk about, into the spotlight, and encouraged people to be aware of the symptoms and seek help if they notice them.

“It’s important for everyone to know what feels normal for them,” Ledwick concludes. “And to contact their GP if they notice any unusual or persistent changes.

“While most changes won’t be cancer, if it is, an early diagnosis can make all the difference.”


If you have questions about cancer go to www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer for comprehensive plain English, easy to understand information about cancer

Or call CRUK’s nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday

To chat online with other people affected by cancer join our fully moderated online community www.cancerchat.org.uk

*Based on Meltwater searches of ‘bowelbabe’ and ‘bowel cancer’ from 9th – 15th May.
†Date comparison: 10th May vs 3rd May
‡Week comparison: w/c 2nd May vs w/c 9th May