Deborah James has a firm date in her diary for March, to go to Manchester and run 5km in the time that it takes the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
It sounds like a fun challenge to take on in aid of Sport Relief. But for Deborah, the issue isn’t so much whether she can reach the finish line in the half-hour or so it will take the musicians at Salford Quays to reach the final note — ‘I hope they play slowly, because I really don’t run very fast,’ she laughs — but that she’s making any plans at all.
Ever since December 2016 when Deborah, the mother of Hugo, 12, and Eloise, ten, was diagnosed with incurable bowel cancer, she’s lived from day to day.
She never committed to anything long-term, as she could end up in hospital undergoing yet another chemo or radiotherapy session (there have been 23 to date), or another operation on her lungs, liver or bowel (she’s chalked up ten so far). ‘Every time I planned anything, the cancer would blindside me,’ she says.
Deborah James and her husband Sebastien Bowen in April last year. They had just decided to retry their relationship after almost divorcing when Deborah was diagnosed
Then there was the unavoidable reality that by the time an event came around Deborah, 38, might be dead.
She had stage four metastatic cancer — meaning it had spread to her lungs and liver — which has a survival rate of only 8 per cent after five years.
For the past three years, she’d been confronting her mortality daily, and even visited a local hospice so she knew exactly where she’d die.
But last December, Deborah learned that ‘there was no evidence of cancer’ in her body, which at one stage was riddled with 15 tumours.
It appears to have been zapped by a new trio of drugs, prescribed ‘as a last resort’. But, she says, ‘I responded to them in a way I didn’t think possible’.
Deborah James will go to Manchester and run 5km in the time that it takes the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in March (pictured with her husband Sebastien)
Yet the normally ebullient Deborah is strangely downbeat about the news. ‘I’d love to have the mindset: “Yay, let’s go and celebrate”,’ she says.
‘But I’m still super, super, super cautious. I’m sadly realistic, and you’re only as good as your last scan.
‘If you go by the statistics, I shouldn’t be alive. Honestly, no one knows what the future looks like for me.’
Her apprehension is understandable. Over the past few years, Deborah has learned to always expect the unexpected.
The former deputy head pictured undergoing treatment for her cancer in hospital
Before her diagnosis, she was an ambitious deputy head teacher who’d been brought in to turn around a failing comprehensive in Surrey. She also had two young children to bring up.
It meant she and her banker husband of nearly 12 years, Sebastien, were always stressed and barely saw each other. ‘It was a classic case of our marriage coming last,’ she says.
Sebastien moved out in 2015 and they embarked on an initially ‘acrimonious’ divorce, both hiring lawyers and starting to see other people. Deborah even went on some ‘hideous’ Tinder dates.
They’d already had the decree nisi when they agreed to counselling, not with any hope of a reconciliation, but simply to be on more cordial terms for the children.
Last December, Deborah learned that ‘there was no evidence of cancer’ in her body, which at one stage was riddled with 15 tumours. Pictured receiving treatment
Then, to Deborah’s astonishment, the pair began having drinks, then dinner, after the sessions.
In November 2016, they made ‘a big step’ and got back together, only for Deborah to receive her shock diagnosis soon after.
‘No one thought 35-year-old vegetarian runners got bowel cancer,’ she says. ‘Everyone assumed it was something that old, meat-eating men got.’
Deborah is very conscious that so far in trials her current drugs have only succeeded in keeping cancer at bay for seven months. ‘I’ve already had eight months, so if you were a betting person you would say this could come back at any time.
Seven weeks since getting the all-clear, Deborah’s body is getting stronger every day. Pictured by the sea during a holiday to Mauritius
‘We just have to plough on with it until the cancer returns again, and live in hope that in that period new treatments will be found.’
Seven weeks since getting the all-clear, Deborah’s body is getting stronger every day (‘Touch wood!’ she cries). But mentally, she ‘feels like a cancer patient’ still undergoing regular operations — she recently had one on her liver to remove a tumour that had stabilised.
‘I’m still at the hospital every two weeks and taking 12 tablets a day with all the side effects, from feeling shattered one day, to sickness and diarrhoea the next, or my skin being really bad.’
Even at her weakest, Deborah has always been determined to stay grounded and do as many normal things as possible.
Deborah, pictured on Lorraine, says exercise is rebuilding her lung capacity, which has been diminished by the operations
So she was devastated when she had to quit her beloved job. ‘I knew I was going to be in hospital a lot, and I’m so passionate about teaching that I couldn’t be doing it half-heartedly,’ she says.
But rather than weeping, she started co-hosting the hugely popular BBC Radio 5 Live podcast You, Me And The Big C, and writing the bestselling book F*** You Cancer: How To Face The Big C, Live Your Life And Still Be Yourself.
‘I’ve ended up with a whole new career almost by accident,’ she says. ‘Everyone said, “Take it easy,” and I thought: “But I’ll just get bored.”
‘I was depressed for a while, because when you have cancer you lose your sense of self, so educating people about cancer and supporting people has given me a new purpose.’
Deborah speaks passionately, having witnessed plenty of feisty characters, whom she befriended in real life and online, die of cancer (pictured in December)
She’s delighted by Dame Julie Walters’s revelation last week that she has been cleared of stage three bowel cancer.
‘It’s so important to have Hollywood stars like her give a face to the disease, because if bowel cancer is spotted early it has a 97 per cent recovery rate,’ Deborah says.
‘But so many people are still too embarrassed to go to their doctor with symptoms and take up their offers of screenings. The educator in me finds it ridiculous.’
Sitting in a cafe in her South-West London neighbourhood, you’d never guess that Deborah has been living at death’s door for so long. Vivacious and funny, she’s dressed in the running gear she now pulls on daily to prepare for the Sport Relief run — which she will take part in alongside such BBC stalwarts as Sophie Raworth, plus any members of the public who sign up.
Deborah is extraordinarily no-nonsense when discussing her children, probably because if she gave in to emotion tears would fall
Even before Deborah’s diagnosis, running was her way of coping with stress. Since then, she’s run several 5k and 10k races, and even completed a half marathon (wary of tempting fate, she didn’t tell friends and family until the day itself).
To distract herself from her fears over her illness, she also regularly ran the 8k from her home to appointments at the Royal Marsden cancer hospital, even when she was nil by mouth before an operation.
Now she’s hoping to run the London Marathon in April.
It sounds bonkers to me, but Deborah says exercise is rebuilding her lung capacity, which has been diminished by the operations.
She adds: ‘I think running helped keep me sane. Research shows cancer patients who exercise have lower levels of anxiety and depression, and that exercise reduces the side effects of chemotherapy.
‘So, as long as your medical team are fine with it and you don’t overdo it, exercise can really help.’
Sebastien has supported Deborah throughout all this, and she describes him as ‘my rock through the darkest of times’.
Still, it hasn’t all been easy. ‘Life with cancer has its highs and lows for a couple,’ she says. ‘Apparently it’s quite common for people to separate during illness, and I can understand why. The dynamic changes and your lover becomes your carer.’
Strains on the relationship have included Deborah’s loss of libido — ‘That’s hard to talk about’ — not to mention her body being so battered that even the gentlest touch felt ‘agonising.’
Deborah would love Strictly Come Dancing to take part in Strictly Come Dancing but wasn’t able to while she was ill
‘Some days I crave the attention, just wanting to feel desired,’ she has said. ‘Other days, my husband can’t sneeze near me without getting his head bitten off. Understandably navigating that — for both of us — is hard.’
However, she says, ‘One of the good things about cancer is it makes you reassess your relationship. It’s crunch time. You think: “Do I really want to be with this person?” And if you don’t, then it’s “Bye!” as life really is short.
‘But cancer can also make you realise how special your connection is, and that’s where we are: in a good place.’
There’s no doubt Deborah is very resilient — something that partly comes from competing nationally as a schoolgirl gymnast.
‘It would not suit me to be like: “Oh, poor me.” But there have definitely been some “Woe is me” moments. It’s just they don’t get you anywhere,’ she says.
But she’s clear she hates the myth that ‘strong’ people can defeat cancer. ‘When I announced I was cancer-free, so many people said: “I knew you’d beat it, you’re so positive.”
‘But actually I find that quite insulting. You can mentally control the impact any situation is having on you, but can you beat the disease? No.
‘People talk about my “magic cure”, but it’s actually down to great medical decisions, a great team and — mainly — a lot of luck.’
Deborah has previously posted on Instagram about running because it makes her feel alive
Deborah speaks passionately, having witnessed plenty of feisty characters, whom she befriended in real life and online, die of cancer.
‘I’m abnormally surrounded by death for someone my age. Every week my inbox is full of goodbye messages from people and it’s s***,’ she says.
Most shattering was the death, nearly two years ago, of friend and podcast co-host Rachael Bland, who had breast cancer.
The Radio 5 Live presenter was 40 and had a toddler son. ‘One hundred per cent I feel guilty that Rachael’s dead and I’m not,’ Deborah says.
‘But I think that guilt can actually be positive because — without sounding like an idiot — it makes you so grateful to be alive.
‘That’s why I run, because I know Rachael would kill to still be here and have that opportunity.’
She laughs when I ask if cancer has made her more patient. ‘I actually think I’m less tolerant now, and just want to do everything.
‘I still get stressed by things like traffic jams; I’m too bad-tempered not to. And I still shout at the children for not getting dressed in time, because otherwise they don’t get out the door.’
BBC Radio 5 live presenter Rachael Bland with Lauren (Girl Vs Cancer) Mahon and Deborah (left) as they recorded their podcast You, Me and the Big C
Deborah is extraordinarily no-nonsense when discussing her children, probably because if she gave in to emotion tears would fall.
‘More than anything, I want to have resilient children. I don’t want them to be weak and pathetic if I die.
‘I’m not saying it’s pathetic to be sad, but the deputy head in me has a no-excuses policy.
‘I’ve said to them: “If I die, you’re not allowed to mess up your life as a result and blame me for it,” because I think people quite often blame their circumstances for failure: “Oh, my Dad died”; “Oh, I come from a broken home”.
‘Well, I’m sorry, but you are your own person, and you can only blame yourself.’
Hugo and Eloise are matter-of-fact about her illness. ‘They don’t make allowances for me; they don’t know any different.
‘Sadly, their formative years, when your memory starts to crystallise, have been about me with cancer.
‘But I don’t think their life has necessarily been hampered by it — if anything they’ve actually seen a lot more of me.
‘Before, I was never around. Not that I regret that, because I loved my job. The kids were absolutely fine then and they’ll be fine now.’
And she says she doesn’t fret about Sebastien ever having to bring up the children solo. ‘He understands what I want for them,’ she says.
I tell her that I’d worry my husband wouldn’t know what school uniform to buy. ‘No, that’s not my husband’s skillset either. If I died I wouldn’t want him to give up his job and play Mum and Dad.
‘There are other people in my life who are really good at that sort of thing, like my mum, and you just draw them around you.’
But enough of such morbid talk. Let’s look at Deborah’s tentative plans. Since her all-clear, she’s agreed to write another book.
Then there’s the question of Strictly Come Dancing, which she’d love to do. ‘But I’ve never even met with the BBC about it — you have to be fit and healthy, so before it wasn’t a possibility,’ she says.
So how about this year? Deborah grins. ‘I’d certainly love to have a meeting about it.’ Once again, she starts looking around for some wood to touch. ‘You see, even saying that, I’m nervous. I don’t want to jinx myself.’