When a serious illness strikes, life, family and career can be turned upside-down in an instant. But for writer and broadcaster Deborah James, who was diagnosed with stage-IV bowel cancer aged 35, the news created a determination to enjoy life, seek new adventures and help others. We sat down with her to hear her inspirational story.
On first meeting Deborah, cancer is the last thing that springs to mind. Humour, positivity and an infectious smile abound. There are jokes and laughter. She radiates a sense of warmth, confidence and glamour. But on hearing the news of her diagnosis, she freely admits things were extremely difficult at first: “I have a husband, two young children. I was a deputy headteacher at a secondary school. My whole world was thrown into chaos.”
But, rather than being overwhelmed by her illness, Deborah was very quickly set on facing her challenges and finding ways to make a difference. She explains: “having cancer made me lose control over my health, but I have control over my mood, the way I look, how I get up each morning... I decided to talk about it.”
‘Talk’ may be an understatement. Deborah channeled her love for education into a hugely popular podcast, ‘You, Me and the Big C’, which she presented on BBC Radio 5 Live alongside Lauren Mahon and her late friend Rachel Bland. She has also made a recent foray into writing, with the release of her guidebook, F*** You Cancer. Writing the book was both a cathartic outlet and a vital way of getting her message across to others with similar experiences: “I wanted people to know they’re not alone, and I didn’t relate to a lot of the leaflets and information I was given in hospital. I wanted to show that you can still be yourself even though you’re going through cancer.”
Deborah’s love of fashion and beauty remains an important part of her life. “Wearing nice clothes makes me feel a bit better, and as a result, I have a more upbeat attitude,” she explains. Her Instagram account, the wonderfully titled @bowelbabe is no exception, mixing her sense of style and glamour with unflinching insights into her illness. Her mantra in life? “Wear a good lipstick and attack any situation with a bit of warpaint and some good heels.”
Naturally, after living with cancer for more than a year and a half, Deborah’s outlook on life has changed considerably. Of course, there are good days and bad days, but her energy and a fierce determination to live life to the full shines through. “I’m not someone who feels grateful for having cancer”, she says, “but it’s made me realise what’s important, and it’s allowed me to recognise that actually, you can do anything you want to do. I have this attitude of ‘if I can do cancer, then I’ll give anything a go!”