In a book she finished writing before her death, titled How to Live When You Could Be Dead, the campaigner, writer and podcaster shares the life lessons she discovered after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
The mum-of-two, who was known as Bowelbabe on social media, was given a less than 8% chance of surviving bowel cancer five years. Her book, written more than five years later, reveals how she flipped her mindset from “you’re going to die” to “you still have a life to lead”.
The country mourned when Dame Debs died on June 18, but she’s still spreading positivity with her trademark message: rebellious hope. Here are just six of the lessons she wanted to leave us with.
1. ‘Why not me?’ is more powerful than ‘why me?’
James acknowledges that it would have been easy for her to slip into “depression, mind-fuckery [and] fear”, so instead, she chose to face her diagnosis with positivity and agency.
“To begin with, we need to stop focusing on ‘Why me?’ and realise that ‘Why not me?’ is just as valid a question,” she writes. “How we learn to respond to any given situation empowers us or destroys us – it’s how we react to the things on our journey that makes or breaks us. That’s why I want to encourage you to question your life as if you didn’t have a tomorrow and live it in the way you want today.”
2. Hope can help you sleep at night
James dedicates the first chapter of the book to the theme of hope, because finding reasons to be optimistic helped her from diagnosis until her final days. At first, it was hope that doctors would find a way to prolong her life. Later, it was the simple hope of having a good day.
“I call it rebellious hope because it goes against what the statistics say about people with my disease,” she writes. “I’m rebelling against expectations of how someone in my position should act, and I’m choosing to remain hopeful despite it perhaps seeming as though there’s nothing to be hopeful for.”
3. If your first goal becomes unattainable, find a new one
Many of us know James as a cancer campaigner, journalist and podcaster, but prior to her diagnosis, she was actually a secondary school teacher with dreams of shaking up the education system. In the book, she reveals her ultimate ambition was to become a headteacher by the age of 35 – something extremely rare by industry standards. But she soon realised a career in education wasn’t compatible with her treatment plan, so a pivot was necessary.
She started her Bowel Babe blog and found new purpose raising awareness of the disease. She says it helped her to feel “in charge of [her] situation rather than sitting back and waiting for the inevitable”.
“And I believe that goal-setting is something that can help all of us, no matter where we are in our lives right now or what challenges we might be facing,” she writes.
4. Failure adds fuel to the fire
James reflects on how her time as a teacher informed her approach to life after diagnosis. In education, she says failure is an inevitable part of learning (after all, who masters a new mathematic equation first time?).
Although nothing could have changed her diagnosis – and James reiterates that cancer is never a ‘failure’ – she says embracing failure helped her to move forward in her work as a writer and campaigner.
“If you’ve never failed, it might mean you’ve never really pushed yourself all that hard, because, in my opinion, it’s impossible to thrive and live life to the fullest without failure,” she says.
5. Nobody has it all figured out
Reading James’ wise words, it would be easy to believe she was born a zen, wellbeing guru. But in the book she reveals that prior to her diagnosis she struggled with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks.
“I’ve lived with anxiety most of my life,” she says. “I’ve been through periods of incredibly frequent, crippling panic attacks that saw me unable to drive a car and rendered me too scared to walk down a busy street or even to go outside.”
She says the “oddest, most unexpected thing” about her cancer diagnosis was that her anxiety plummeted.
And although she jokes that she wouldn’t recommend getting an incurable illness to cure your anxiety, she does advocate finding peace in your own way, whether that’s cognitive behavioural therapy or a hobby that makes your heart sing.
6. There’s always something to be grateful for
“I’m not saying you should look on the bright side whatever the circumstances, because sometimes things come along that are really shit,” writes James. However, she insists that there’s always something to be grateful for.
Before cancer, James thought she was grateful but admits that in hindsight she actually took loved ones for granted, skipping school plays when work was busy or failing to appreciate her husband.
But approaching the end of her life, she was overwhelmed with gratitude for her family and learned to appreciate the small things, like wearing lipstick or being able to go out in the car for a drive.
“Life can get tough, but then we can get tougher,” she says. “Living in the face of death is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it has truly shown me the power of gratitude.”