You, Me and the Big C

Podcast Presenter Deborah James talks about survival and hope. This Barnes mum, school-teacher and all round impressive woman, delivers a compelling lesson on life in the run up to the season of celebration.


How do you live when statistics say you are dying? Hope, options and a dark sense of humour!


Two years ago, the week before Christmas 2016, my world was whipped from beneath my feet. I was a busy working mum of two children – Hugo now 11, and Eloise, 9. I was a career-focused Deputy Headteacher, who by my own admission, spent more time worrying about getting my 1500 “kids” through their GCSE’s than ensuring my own were packed off correctly for the day. I was floating through life and living for the future – one that I now don’t have.


I had been pooing blood for around 6 months prior to my diagnosis. My bowel habits had changed, I was losing weight and I was tired. Really tired – but then aren’t all mums? Four doctors visits and a few bloods tests later and I was assured that there was “nothing serious to worry about” – perhaps I was just stressed? Things got worse, so I took myself off to get a colonoscopy – just to check.


No one ever prepares you for the words “You have Cancer”. They come crashing into your world like the uninvited guest at a Christmas party –  one that leaves the mother of all messes to deal with. I will never forget driving back from the hospital in shock thinking, but it can’t be. I don’t want to die.


I was the healthy, young, female vegetarian that got Bowel Cancer – a cancer more often associated with men over the age of 50. By the time my Cancer was discovered, I was housing a 6.5cm tumour in my bowel and seven tumours in my lungs. I was Stage Four. There is no Stage Five.


I know the stats say I won’t see my kids to secondary school. In fact, I only have an 8% chance of living 5 years – I’m a ticking time bomb that has already outlived her prognosis. Each Christmas is likely to be my last and each New Year rings in another 12 months where my medical team have to “fight” and pray for a lot of luck to keep me alive.


I’ve undergone four lung operations, a bowel resection, 21 cycles of chemotherapy and cyber-knife treatment – a super targeted type of radiotherapy. I’m still on treatment, still here, albeit with a fractured ankle due to running a half marathon in my quest to prove you can “Live with Cancer”. In my quest to find ways to just be myself, I have met brilliant people to be in the trenches with me – but I’ve had to watch numerous friends diagnosed at the same time as me die,  too young, because of the disease that 1 in 2 of us will get in our life time. Whilst more people will life for 10 years after Cancer enters their life, I’ve learnt the hard way that many won’t.


Rachael Bland, my Co-host on the You, me and the Big C – our award-winning Podcast on Radio 5 Live – died earlier this year from triple negative breast cancer. We were recording until 10 days before her death. Whilst heartbreaking to be part of her story, I feel immense pride to be able to continue the work we started – the work around normalizing the conversation around cancer. What does Cancer look like? Well it looks like me. No I haven’t lost my hair, and yes I do still love a good lippy and massive glass of wine!


Since my diagnosis I’ve done things I never thought possible. Alongside the BBC podcast, I write a weekly column for the Sun – Things Cancer Made Me Say. I wrote a best selling book – F*** You Cancer – published by Penguin and I realised that saying yes to living for the now is a little bit more fun.


I have to live in the present because I live one step at a time. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I have hope. Not hope for a cure, but hope that whatever happens I’ll have no regrets with what I’m doing in my life. For spending time with people I love, laughing and crying in the face of cancer and patting myself on the back for getting up, wiping my tears and saying F*** You Cancer – I’ll do you tomorrow.


Bowel Cancer – The facts:


  • One in 16 men will get Bowel Cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 19 women.


  • There is a growing trend in people under the age of 50 being diagnosed.


  • Each year over 16,000 people will die of Bowel Cancer – it is still the 2nd biggest cancer killer in the U.K – mainly because all too often symptoms are missed.  


  • When caught early over 90% of people will survive. But when caught at an advanced stage – less than 10% will survive.


Symptoms to look for:

  • Blood in your poo
  • A change of Bowel Habit
  • Unexplained Tiredness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A lump in your tummy