When Dame Deborah James (Bowelbabe) met Prince William

Checks for bowel cancer are at a record high, thanks to the bravery of the late Dame Deborah James, who lost her battle against the disease last year.

Sadly, the Surrey-born journalist, charity campaigner and podcast host was only 40 years old when she died in June 2022.

She had campaigned tirelessly, even when very ill herself, urging people to have an NHS test which could save their life, and earning the nickname Bowelbabe as a result of her work to highlight the disease.

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She met Prince William through her charity work, describing how she felt “utterly honoured” that he had visited her for afternoon tea. He personally delivered a damehood to the cancer champion at her home in May 2022.

Between May and July 2022, referrals for possible gastro-intestinal cancers reached the highest levels since records began.

Record number of bowel cancer checks

More than 170,500 patients were referred for further checks during that period – an increase of more than 30,000, compared with the same period in 2021 and almost 80,000 higher than the same period in 2020.

Referral data, published by NHS Digital, showed that Dame Deborah’s campaign, combined with the NHS Help Us, Help You initiative, had achieved an immediate impact. Bowel cancer referrals increased by 60%, compared with pre-Covid levels. In addition, an extra 200,000 visitors searched on the NHS website for “bowel cancer symptoms” – the fourth most common cancer in England, diagnosed in around 37,000 people every year.

The long-term plan set out by the NHS aims to diagnose 75% of cancers at stages one or two by 2028. This would increase the number of patients surviving for five years or more by 55,000.

NHS leaders have paid tribute to Dame Deborah and her “incredible work” in capturing the nation’s heart with her own story and getting more people to talk about a once-taboo subject.

Dame Deborah’s story

Dame Deborah was a deputy head teacher who specialised in e-learning and computer science, working first at Salesian School, Chertsey, before starting a new job at the Matthew Arnold School in Staines-upon-Thames.

She had married Sebastien Bowen in 2008 and the couple went on to have two children. In 2016, tragically, she was told she had stage 3 bowel cancer. From that moment onwards, she began throwing herself into fundraising for cancer charities and spearheading her awareness campaign. She was given a timeline and said she wanted to make the most of life and campaign to help the world.

She launched a blog to describe her own cancer journey and then started writing a column in the Sun newspaper, becoming hugely popular and lively on social media and hosting the BBC podcast You, Me and the Big C, with fellow cancer patients Lauren Mahon and the late Rachael Bland.

Dame Deborah was praised for the “frankness, honesty and humour” of her writing. Very open about her life with bowel cancer, in October 2018 she published her book, How to Face the Big C, Live Your Life and Still Be Yourself.

However, after undergoing continual treatment, she revealed in June 2021 that her cancer had worsened, and the drugs were no longer working. In May 2022, she told social media followers she was receiving “hospice at home care”, admitting frankly that she didn’t know how long she had left. Within 48 hours of her post, more than £3 million was raised for her campaign to help people with cancer, the Bowelbabe Fund.

Special royal visitor

Just days later, the brave mum was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to cancer awareness and charity. She was surprised and delighted to learn she was to receive her damehood from a very special royal visitor, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, at her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey.

When Dame Deborah James met Prince William, she admitted the whole experience had been somewhat “surreal” when she considered a royal prince had been in her home, sipping tea and champagne!

Prince William had chosen to personally give the cancer awareness champion her damehood. He was seen in photos on social media smiling warmly with Dame Deborah after handing over the honour. Describing her joy that he had taken the time to visit, she said, “You can imagine the cleaning antics and preparation went off the scale!”

However, she added it was “all irrelevant” because William was “so kind”, he had put the whole family at ease. The young royal didn’t stand on ceremony and appeared to enjoy a more informal and friendly visit, rather than the usual pomp of presenting a medal. Dame Deborah described how it had been a “special day” for her family and had made “memories to last a lifetime”. She added, “He’s welcome back any time!”

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had previously expressed their personal support for the fundraiser and had donated to her cancer fund. Describing her as “inspiring” in a personal tweet, they thanked her for her “tireless efforts in raising awareness of bowel cancer”. The royal couple wrote: “Deborah, our thoughts are with you, your family and your friends. Thank you for giving hope to so many who are living with cancer. W & C.”

Her husband, Sebastien, later revealed Prince William appeared to have felt an empathy with their children, after having lost his own mother, Princess Diana, in a car accident at an early age. He had spoken kindly to them at length. In a statement, Sebastian said, “He’s obviously been through similar grief with the loss of his mother, so he gave powerful advice to the children that will stay with them forever.”

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