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Tributes have poured in for Dame Deborah James this week, who passed away from bowel cancer at the age of 40.
Deborah, who was awarded a Damehood by Prince William in May, became known as Bowelbabe after setting up a fund to raise money for research into the disease.
It has now topped £7 million. But it was her podcast — You, Me And The Big C — which she presented with fellow cancer sufferers Rachael Bland and Lauren Mahon, that propelled her into the spotlight.
When co-presenter Rachael died in 2018, her husband, Steve, took her place, talking about the effects of caring for and losing a loved one from cancer. Here, Steve Bland pens a heartfelt letter to Deborah’s husband, Seb.
I have cried many tears for Deb — and the lovely family she left behind — over the past few days.
I know all too well the heartbreak you are enduring right now. As a husband whose beloved wife also died far too young, I wish I could impart some wisdom that would lift you through the agony.
I stumbled my way through the early months and I’m not sure there’s any other way to do it, when every day begins with the sickening realisation that the woman you thought you would spend your life with has gone and ends with you going to bed alone, having run another obstacle course of painful memories and emotions.
But amid all the gut-wrenching sadness — and you have to have lived through it to truly understand it — there is bound also to be relief that Deb’s suffering is, at last, over.
Whatever you need, I want you to know that I am here for you and your lovely children, just as I promised Deb I would be.
For Deb, always fantastically practical, was there for me after my wife, Rachael, died aged 40 — the same age Deb was when she died.
You and I have exchanged text messages often — mostly me checking how you are because I remember vividly everyone asking after Rachael and rarely how I was. But who could possibly understand the toll that nursing a loved one through a terminal illness takes if they’ve never experienced the trauma of it?
Recently, though, I’ve sent messages telling you what an amazing job you’re doing.
You’ve been by Deb’s side throughout, making her last few weeks as memorable as possible, with outings to Ascot and the Chelsea Flower Show. And, as magical as it looked in the photographs, I know what it must have taken out of you and the family.
Some people may have looked at the pictures and thought: ‘Oh, she’s a bit thin but she’s doing OK’ but I know, from experience, that her body will have been so weak by then that she would have been sleeping round the clock and could do little for herself.
As a sporty vegetarian in her 30s, Deb was far from a typical bowel cancer patient and she was determined to prevent others turning a blind eye to symptoms. She was so incredibly savvy in her execution of this
Those were snapshots in what were otherwise the most challenging of days.
I remember lying in bed next to Rachael towards the end, terrified she was about to take her last breath. She opened her eyes once and said: ‘Stop waiting for me to die,’ and we laughed as I explained that I didn’t know how to be, or what to expect — hoping it would happen while we slept, so that I didn’t have to witness it.
When the time did come, however, I was glad I was awake to hold her hand.
I know that you were with Deb at the end, too, and like me, you had been on constant high alert for a long time before that, which is both physically and mentally exhausting.
Deb always said she was inspired by Rachael to ‘die well’ — having done everything she wanted to do, said everything she wanted to say, without regrets, and surrounded by the people she loved — and I’m told that she did exactly that.
The next couple of weeks will be a whirlwind as you deal with everything and organise the funeral.
I’ve had lots of WhatsApp messages from Deb in recent weeks — granted, not as many as she used to send, when I’d sometimes wake to a hundred of them, sent overnight to our podcast group — asking how we had organised Rachael’s funeral.
I’ll never forget Deb turning up at the church looking incredibly glamorous — didn’t she always? — in a floppy black hat and sunglasses, then, sadly, having to be taken home early because she felt unwell due to the treatment she was receiving at the time.
Ever the forward planner, she wanted to know how I’d dealt with being in the public eye around the funeral and I told her that lots of TV crews had asked to attend but we’d insisted on it being a private affair.
After the funeral, when life goes back to normal for other people, when they stop calling in and dropping things off, and you’re left with this great big hole in your life that you can’t imagine ever being able to fill, it will be incredibly hard. And I want you to know that I’ll be at the end of a phone if you need me.
As a parent, even on the darkest days, when all you want to do is pull the duvet over your head, you have no choice but to get up and carry on, for the sake of your children. And those reasons for living — in your case Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, and in mine, Freddie, who was only three when his mother died — are a great blessing.
I recommend having a project, too. During the months I couldn’t face work, I focused my energies on finishing writing the book, For Freddie, that Rachael had not had the time to complete. You will have the magnificent Bowelbabe Fund.
You know better than most that Deb felt she and Bowelbabe, the moniker she created for herself, were two very different people.
She told me that Bowelbabe was much cooler than her, like a caricature, and under that guise she felt she could do anything.
The real Deb, meanwhile, was an ordinary woman with cancer, who was afraid, who didn’t want to die, but was also determined to live every last minute to the fullest.
Your wife was a superstar, literally one in a million, and I feel unbelievably lucky to have been able to call her my friend — a friendship that only developed after Rachael died and I took her place on the podcast, You, Me And The Big C, alongside Deb and Lauren, providing the spouse and widower’s perspective.
I have cried many tears for Deb — and the lovely family she left behind — over the past few days. I know all too well the heartbreak you are enduring right now. As a husband whose beloved wife also died far too young, I wish I could impart some wisdom that would lift you through the agony
My first contact with Deb was a text message three days before Rachael died, which simply said: ‘What can I do?’
Something we agreed she could do, and which she threw herself into with gusto, was awareness-raising media interviews, which I didn’t feel strong enough to cope with at the time.
While Deb relished being in the public eye, it might not be somewhere you feel particularly comfortable, so I suspect you’re feeling a little overwhelmed that the focus of attention has shifted from your wife to you.
The day after Rachael died, I remember seeing my face, alongside hers, on the front pages of newspapers and, although I’d worked in the media for years, as a journalist and then a BBC producer, finding myself in the spotlight took some adjusting to.
However, I suspect, once you have the strength, you will want to do what you can to continue Deb’s legacy through the Bowelbabe Fund, just as I agreed, after having battened down the hatches to grieve with my family for a few months, to take Rachael’s place on the podcast.
It was then, in early 2019, that I really got to know Deb. She, Lauren and I would go for lunch and drinks after recording and we would talk, laugh and even sometimes cry — Lauren and I are the more tactile, emotional ones while Deb was never one for outpourings and would bristle when we hugged her, something we would tease her about.
As a sporty vegetarian in her 30s, Deb was far from a typical bowel cancer patient and she was determined to prevent others turning a blind eye to symptoms. She was so incredibly savvy in her execution of this.
She liked looking at her Instagram analytics, what worked and what didn’t, and I remember her telling me a couple of years ago: ‘When I dance around in my underwear I get loads of followers and loads of engagement, so I think I might just carry on doing that.’
Some onlookers might have said: ‘You are just a massive show-off’. And, obviously, she was a bit of a show-off sometimes, but only ever because she wanted to build an audience so she could spread the word far and wide. Her courage in speaking out over the past five years must have saved countless lives.
It was her podcast — You, Me And The Big C — which she presented with fellow cancer sufferers Rachael Bland and Lauren Mahon, that propelled her into the spotlight
However, when people asked what her greatest legacy would be, Deb would always say: ‘My children.’
I recall her once telling me that she didn’t feel she’d been a very good mother before her cancer diagnosis in 2016, which she said had turned her into a ‘much better mum’.
I understand she had previously been very career-oriented, devoting much of her time to her work as a deputy headteacher, and, cliched though it sounds, when you’re told you don’t have long left to live, it really concentrates the mind on what’s most precious in your life.
She spent far more time with the children these past five-and-a-half years, making memories, putting them first, which she told me she didn’t always do before.
As devastating as her death must be for Hugo and Eloise, they have certainly had the best version of their incredible mum since her diagnosis.
And Eloise is so like her mother, she will always be a wonderful reminder to you all.
The first time I met your daughter was after doing an interview at the Television Centre in London a couple of years ago.
She and Deb came to meet me afterwards and I was walking beside Eloise while her mum was a few paces behind, looking at her phone. Eloise turned to her and said: ‘Deborah, will you come on!’
It really made me chortle and I said: ‘She’s your mini-me!’ which made Deb snort in recognition.
I’m not speaking out of turn when I say that you and Deb had your challenges before she got her diagnosis, as it is well-documented, and I mention it now because she was very proud of the way you’ve stepped up, particularly over the past couple of years, as her condition became graver.
Deb said it was a huge weight off her mind that you’re ‘such a great dad’ because she knew that meant your children would be well taken care of after she was gone.
How surreal it feels to write that now. For despite the doctors’ warnings in May that Deb didn’t have long left, her indomitable strength and resilience convinced us all that she was actually indestructible.
The other day I came across the proposal for the podcast, You, Me And The Big C, that Rachael sent to BBC Radio 5 Live five years ago.
I smiled to myself noticing that, at the time, Deborah had just a couple of thousand Instagram followers — small fry compared to the million she has since notched up — but Rachael, always brilliant at spotting talent, was in no doubt that she would make the perfect co-presenter.
Likewise, lovely Lauren, who is struggling to come to terms with Deborah’s death. To be the only survivor from the original three podcasters, and to have lost another dear friend to this dreadful disease, is a difficult thing to bear. But, as Deb often said, there can be life after cancer.
As you know, I’ve been fortunate enough to find love again — I feel incredibly blessed to have hit the jackpot twice — with a wonderful woman, a beautiful advanced nurse practitioner called Amy, who I will marry this summer.
The last time I saw Deb, in June last year, I introduced her to Amy, who had travelled to London with me to celebrate my 41st birthday.
Far from it being awkward for Amy to meet one of Rachael’s close friends, Deb was her warm, wonderful self and could not have been more welcoming.
I know that she hoped you and the children would find real happiness again, after she was gone — Rachael wanted the same for me and Freddie — and she took great comfort in seeing Amy and me together, especially knowing how devoted she is to Freddie.
I understand that you will have felt anything but fortunate over the past few weeks — there can be few greater pains than watching the woman you love suffer.
But how lucky are we to have had incredible wives, who each took the dreadful hand that life dealt them and, instead of wallowing in self-pity, became a force for so much good.
The one thing that has brought me real solace this week is imagining Deb and Rachael reunited, no longer suffering and raising a toast to the incredible things they achieved in their too short time on earth.
I hope this thought brings you some comfort too.