She doesn’t look like a cancer victim; she doesn’t sound like a cancer victim; she doesn’t dress like a cancer victim; and she certainly doesn’t behave like a cancer victim. And that’s because Dame Deborah James is not a cancer victim. She’s not a victim of anything; she’s a celebrator of life, and I’m one of the many millions who love her for it.
I’ve been following Debs’ Instagram account and listening to her podcast for the last five years; like many people, I’ve never met her, but I feel I know her. I felt drawn to her because I think I have just the slightest inkling of what it’s all about for her, and I admire her more than I can say for her spirit of refusing, point-blank, to even be associated with however cancer is supposed to make you look and feel and act.
Even a ‘cure’ has its caveats; they only find out they really have got rid of it when you die from something else
I was diagnosed with malignant breast disease a little over eight years ago. I didn’t come even near to being told it was terminal; but there’s a time, for everyone who gets cancer, when the medical people don’t yet know what they’re going to find inside you – and, in the absence of knowing, they err on the side of caution. What that means is, if you’ve had a cancer diagnosis, you’ve probably lived, at least for a few weeks, with the possibility that you might be told the disease is life-threatening. (And of course, even a “cure” has its caveats; they only find out they really have got rid of it when you die from something else.)
What I discovered, as I was looking down the barrel of “Is the news here just going to get worse and worse?” was that the scariest thing, yes, is facing death. But right behind it is another fear: that you’re going to be defined, consumed and marked for ever by your diagnosis. That was something I was desperate to avoid, and it feels to me as though Debs had exactly the same instinct. She is sometimes described as a commentator on cancer, and, of course, You, Me and the Big C – the podcast she created with Lauren Mahon and the late Rachael Bland – is all about living with the disease. But on Instagram, which is where I mostly commune with Debs, her posts are about life, and about living it to the full. There are posts about fitness gear and face creams; posts about wall art and running; posts about her lovely kids, her magnificent mum and the husband she always calls her rock. Most of all, though, there are pictures of Debs looking just amazing; her sense of style is awesome, and she has a gorgeous figure. She knows exactly what suits her, and how to wear it to the best advantage – if I didn’t know she’d been a deputy headteacher before becoming a media personality, I’d have thought she was a model. She is always honest when things are going against her – as they have been for a while – but she still seems to be dancing round the Royal Marsden in Kensington, boogying round her chemo pump, eating chocolate in the sunshine on a balcony, or raving about her favourite dry shampoo.
I get it, because nothing (apart from not dying) mattered to me more than being normal when I had cancer. I worked hard, as Debs works hard, to banish it to the edges of my life – to live in the moment, giving it as little space as possible. One of my finest moments was when I rocked up to the Marsden, on my own, for one of my operations, wearing a great outfit, high heels and sunglasses. At the ward desk the receptionist asked who I had come to visit; I said I’m not a visitor – I’m here for surgery. And as I walked off down the corridor, I heard her whisper behind me: “I’d never have thought she was a patient.” Reader: it more than made my day – it made my year.
One of the great things about being treated at the Marsden is that, if you’re up to it, you walk out slap, bang into the arms of a lovely wine bar or restaurant – and it seems a shame not to enjoy it. One time I’d had day-case surgery there, and was discharged in time for supper at Carluccio’s, with a daughter who had come to pick me up: you’re not allowed to leave hospital on your own if you have had a general anaesthetic. You’re not supposed to drink alcohol after one either, but what’s the harm in a small glass? And then the waiter appeared and asked: “Small or large?” And I thought: “Christ, I’ve just survived a cancer operation. Mine’s a large.” On another occasion, I was invited to the races on a radiotherapy day: I arrived for my treatment in a glamorous outfit and a big hat – and did my makeup for my day out in the clinic loo.
I guess, thinking about it, I realised eight years ago that there was something scarier than dying – and that was not living. Not living as fully, as passionately, as enjoyably, as daringly, as outrageously as possible. Debs gets that, too: and, honestly, she’s not going to be remembered as a woman who had cancer. She’s going to be remembered as a woman who truly knew how to make the most of life. She knows what matters, she knows what keeps her going, she knows how to wring every last, enjoyable drop out of this rollercoaster they call life. She knows that, while the length of time you’re around matters (and how it matters, when you’ve got young kids like her), your spirit also matters – and it outlives you. Debs’ spirit, her joie de vivre, her role-modelling of the importance of seizing the moment, her example of living for now, her ability to not allow fear to dominate her actions, all will go on influencing not only the way her family lives into the future, but also how other people she has never met, and now never will, go on living.
Joanna Moorhead writes for the Guardian, mostly about parenting and family life