IT is nearly five months since Heather James kissed her daughter goodbye for the last time.
And not a day goes by without a reminder of her eldest child, Dame Deborah James.
Thanks to her efforts in raising awareness, in the past year 2.8million people were tested for the disease, data published last month shows — up almost a fifth from 2.32million in 2018/19.
And figures from the NHS last week showed record numbers of cancer cases are being caught early, with 56.7 per cent of cases — 100,461 out of 177,180 in a sample — found at stage one or two in 2021-22.
Heather, 65, says from her home in Woking, Surrey: “Lots of things just catch you unawares.
“I was at the garden centre the other day with my husband Alistair and I spotted the Christmas baubles.
“Deborah loved Christmas so much, she loved buying the children new decorations, picking the tree, decorating it and playing Christmas songs.
“Last year, I remember we came to the same garden centre and she found a shoe decoration for her daughter Eloise.
“She came home with some huge Nutcracker ornaments too. I know I am going to find it really hard to see those this year.”
She was given days to live, but a bloody-minded campaigner from the day she was diagnosed, Deborah refused to give up.
With the last embers of energy she could muster, the ex-teacher continued to raise awareness of the disease that would cut her life cruelly short.
She finished her second book, was honoured with a Damehood by Prince William — who popped over for tea — launched a charity fashion collection, had a rose named after her and inspired millions to check themselves for signs of cancer.
So successful was she, that since her death, the NHS has hailed the “Dame Deborah James effect” in driving more people than ever before to have life-saving cancer tests.
It was just four days before she died that Debs learned one final project had been given the go-ahead.
A simple but effective change, as Deborah told her mum: “We all wipe our bums.”
Part of Deborah’s magic was in the way she made it OK to talk about poo, bums and bowels, topics so often seen as taboo.
In her Sun column, Things Cancer Made Me Say, Deborah spent five years urging people to “Check your poo”.
She knew all too well that when it comes to cancer — and bowel cancer in particular — early diagnosis really does save lives.
Mum Heather said her daughter would be blown away by the impact she has had.
And she admitted seeing the toilet rolls on the shelves in Tesco last week, for the first time, moved her to tears.
“It was very emotional,” she told The Sun.
“I was so proud to walk down the aisle to see one of Deborah’s last dreams come true.
“Seeing the packets on the shelves, I just wanted to hug them. I’ll never buy any other toilet rolls ever again.
“I don’t ever want to rip the packaging open, it is just so lovely to see what she has achieved there in purple and white, with the BowelBabe Fund logo on the front.”
And with more than a million packs of their Luxury Soft Toilet Paper sold each week, Jason Tarry, Tesco UK CEO agrees with Heather that it will have a huge impact.
He told us: “We know that by making the symptoms available we can truly deliver this important and potentially life-saving information directly into the homes of our customers. We were privileged to work with Deborah and to continue working with the Bowelbabe Fund.”
Heather added: “What a legacy. It’s truly one of the greatest things she managed to do.
“Everyone buys toilet rolls and even if just one person notices a symptom and gets it checked out, it will be worth it.
“I have no doubt this will help save lives and that is something that will for ever make me proud.”
But, for Heather and her family, the momentous occasion is bittersweet.
While Dame Debs knew it was going to happen, she didn’t live to see the packs roll off the production line.
Heather says: “Four days before she died she got the news that it was finally all fully agreed and it was actually going to happen.
“I am so pleased she lived long enough to know, it was such a relief for her but it breaks my heart that she never saw it.
“She knew it was a done deal, and she was so happy.
“It really meant so much to her and was one of the last things she managed to do.
“I remember her sitting in the garden and she just looked at me and said, ‘It’s done, we are going to see this on all toilet rolls’.
“I’ll never forget the smile on her face.”
And it’s not just Deborah’s infectious smile that Heather holds on to.
Along with Dame Debs’ husband Sebastien, the couple’s kids, Hugo, 15, and Eloise, 13, and the rest of the family, Heather is inspired by her daughter’s love of life.
“We all have our different ways of coping,” she says.
“But we all try to enjoy life, in the way that Deborah would have wanted.
“The children are both doing really well, they’re busy with school.
“I find some days are tougher than others.
“I often just want to hide away but I always think, ‘What would Deborah do?’
“Even in her final weeks she lived life and she was an inspiration.
“It was one of her greatest gifts, and it’s one that she’s left us all.”
- Donate to Dame Debs’ Bowelbabe Fund by visiting bowelbabe.org.