At one stage, the 38-year-old BBC Radio 5 Live podcast presenter, aka the “Bowel Babe,” had 15 tumours before a scan earlier this year revealed that she is cancer-free thanks to targeted therapy for her stage 4 bowel cancer. Deborah, host of the You, Me & the Big C podcast, still has to take 11 tablets a day to treat the mutation within her bowel and has radiotherapy fortnightly at the London’s Royal Marsden Hospital.
While many cancer patients have seen treatment suspended because of coronavirus, she realises she is one of the lucky ones after recently losing dear friend Kelly Smith.
And she’s “terrified” that more patients could fall victim unless the Government quickly acts to address the crisis in cancer care.
Kelly, 31, from Manchester, whose son Finley is six, died of bowel cancer in months lifeline cancer June when her chemotherapy treatment was stopped during lockdown.
Her parents Mandy and Craig Russell are now calling on the Government to get cancer services back up and running to avoid further tragedies and have launched a petition – which has so far received more than 200,000 signatures – to stop tens of thousands of coronavirus-linked cancer deaths.
“Kelly was one of my best friends and she died at the age of 31 after her chemo was stopped during lockdown,” says Deborah. “The Government needs to set out a plan showing exactly how they will flatten the cancer curve.
Deborah James wants to see more people helped
“At the moment all they seem obsessed about is a second wave of coronavirus and although we can’t deny the seriousness of Covid we have to find a way of getting cancer services back up and running to beyond where they were before.
“During the first wave the data shows that cancer was definitely forgotten. Getting an endoscopy, which is how you diagnose bowel cancer, went down to record lows and we know there is a massive backlog in the system with people waiting for endoscopies and there will be repercussions because of that and that is really scary.
“I’m terrified at the growing cancer crisis the country faces in the aftermath of Covid.
“When you delay cancer treatment people flick from being curable to incurable and we have to remember that it costs the NHS more money when that happens and more importantly lives.
“Nobody is going to pretend that Kelly was going to live forever and we knew what her outcome was going to be because she had incurable cancer.
“But there’s a very big difference when you are 31 and you have a six-year-old son, and Kelly now can’t take him to school in September. A few extra months is a lifetime for a cancer patient and Kelly didn’t get that. Her life was cut short by treatment delays and sadly she is a prime example of the hard decisions that had to be made because of Covid.”
Deborah says her friendship with Kelly blossomed three years ago when they were introduced by late colleague Rachael Bland, founder of You, Me & the Big C podcast.
“Rachael used to see her when they were having their treatment and after Kelly was diagnosed she reached out to me and said, ‘I’ve just been diagnosed’. We spoke every day online for three years and we used to meet when I went to Manchester,” she says.
Rachael Bland, Lauren Mahon and Deborah James who appeared on the You, Me & the Big C podcast
“Kelly was a positive and upbeat person. She was a fun-loving brilliant girl, full of energy and life.
“The end of her life was so tough because when she moved into a hospice it meant that only her mum could be at her side and it really breaks my heart to think that.”
However, losing close friends forces Deborah to face the fact that she could be next.
“The online cancer community is my extended family, which makes it very hard when someone dies. I met Rachael through Twitter,” she says.
“Losing Rachael and Kelly is a stark reality that I have incurable cancer. When I see what my friends are going through, it is heart-breaking and scary and I’m very grateful to be here. But I know what the other side of the coin looks like.”
Deborah has an aggressive mutation, BRAf. When she was diagnosed she was told that fewer than eight per cent of people survive for even five years when cancer was caught at her stage.
Every fortnight, Deborah has treatment but is still terrified at each visit and can never get through it without having a panic attack.
“Having treatment every other week is part of my life now,” she says. “But it fills me with that sense of dread when I walk up the steps of the Marsden because I don’t want to be back in hospital again. I’m very grateful to be having treatment because it is keeping me alive. But I still don’t like it. It’s the enormity of it as well as the reaction to the drugs.
Lauren revealed she only had days to live after being diagnosed with incurable cancer in 2018
“My kids Hugo, who’s 12, and Eloise, 10, are at home with my husband Sebastian and I’m generally at the hospital for the whole day.
“I was told that I was cancer-free earlier this year and my last scan said that I still am, which is amazing.
“But I’ll be really honest back in April, in lockdown, I had a bit of a blip and my tumour markers went a bit high which meant I had to ramp up my treatment.
“But luckily I am in a cancer-free state, so I can’t complain.”
Deborah was planning to run the London Marathon in October despite having a dodgy right ankle after fracturing it on a Royal Parks half-marathon in 2018 and the fact that she suffers from nerve damage in her feet caused by her treatment and weakened bones.
But with the marathon now cancelled and a virtual one being run in its place, Deborah is taking part in a marathon for the Royal Marsden, with the 26 miles to be run over 26 days in September.
“I’m doing it to remember all the friends that I have lost along the way and to raise much needed funds,” she says.
“Before Covid, they were going to be bringing in a hefty sum of money and now they are not. If we have a second wave, they’re going to suffer again. Funding for the Marsden will be down by 25 per cent and Cancer Research UK will be down by £300million over three years.”
Deborah is due to celebrate her 40th birthday in October
Deborah is due to celebrate her 40th birthday in October next year – the weekend the London Marathon has been rescheduled for.
But she doesn’t think about the milestone. “I can’t really think about running the marathon because not only is it on my birthday weekend, it is that I have never pictured myself at 40 because I was told I wouldn’t make my 40th birthday,” she confesses.
“On top of that it will be coming up to five years of diagnosis which considering that fewer than 80 per cent of people make it that far and with my type of mutation it is even less and it is not something I think about.
“Anything can change any time so I don’t allow myself to think that far into the future. One step ahead is the best way to look at it.
“I wouldn’t say I am pessimistic but I am realistic because I live in a dark world.
“However thanks to new targeted treatment and drugs I’ve gone from having 15 tumours – some that were inoperable – and planning my funeral, visiting a hospice and refusing to plan beyond a few weeks in advance, to being told that I have no active cancer in my body, so that really is something to celebrate.”
• Sign up for Marsden Marathon at: royalmarsden.org/marsden-marathon