“I’M determined not to die over the Jubilee weekend, I don’t want Meghan stealing my thunder,” Dame Deborah James tells me.
Laughing down the phone, the Sun writer has lost none of her sense of humour as she shares an update almost a month after revealing she has moved to end-of-life care at the home of her parents Alistair and Heather.
Debs says: “I haven’t worked so hard to raise cancer awareness and money to help find a cure, only to miss out on another Sun front page when I go.”
The 40-year-old campaigner — presented with a damehood by Prince William last month when he cleared his diary to visit her parents’ home — is joking. Her wit and spark has not deserted her in her final days.
But, sounding exhausted, she does admit: “Dying is really hard. I’ve been consumed by anger this week, in all honesty, I’ve been a real bitch.
“I keep shouting at people and pushing them away. I’m angry at what’s happening to me. I don’t want to die.”
It is why Dame Debs, who has children Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, with husband Seb, has taken the hard decision not to see close friends, and only spend time with family.
“I don’t want my friends to see me like this,” she says, with sadness in her voice. “I don’t want them to remember me this way.”
Debs is approaching death in the same way she has approached living with incurable bowel cancer for the past five years.
“There’s no right or wrong way to die,” she says. “I’m still doing this my way. I’m frustrated with my situation because I don’t want to die. I don’t think I will ever really accept it.
“I was given days, to a week, to live when I left the hospital. But I’m still here.
“I don’t really believe that it’s happening. It all feels like a horrible joke. Watching the demise of my body is really, really sad.
“I was someone who, even for most of my time living with cancer, was fit and healthy. So to see myself like this now, it’s heartbreaking.”
Over the past few weeks, Debs tells me she has learnt a huge amount about dying — crucially that “different things work for different people”.
She says: “There’s no blueprint to how you’re going to feel when you’re dying. Emotions change, second by second, hour by hour. I’m scared because I don’t know what to expect.
“It’s a really scary thing to face, I’m only 40, and it’s heartbreaking knowing what I am leaving behind.
“What’s really hard is that no one talks about death, we don’t really know what happens or how we’re meant to navigate it.
“Death is life’s last taboo. I hope that by talking about it a bit, I might bring some comfort to others. People might look at me and think, ‘Just spend time with your family.’
“They might question why I’m doing all this — the book launch, the T-shirts, raising money for my BowelBabe Fund. The truth is, it’s giving me purpose in my final days.
“It’s amazing what you can do with a deadline — the ultimate one. And my family are all a part of this with me. We’re doing it our way.”
So far, cancer campaigner Debs has raised a staggering £6.6MILLION — with another £1million raised from the sale of her Rebellious Hope T-shirts, pre-sales of her second book How To Live When You Could Be Dead, and a rose named in her honour.
She is no longer having any treatment for her cancer, as doctors have told her nothing more can be done — and instead she is on pain- killers and some other drugs to keep her as comfortable as possible.
She tells me she still feels “with it, lucid and like me”, but admits: “That’s what makes all this even harder to accept. If I was taking lots of drugs and felt out of it, I probably wouldn’t be as aware of everything I’m set to lose.”
Debs may be dying, but those close to her will not be surprised to hear that she is still maintaining her signature style. “I’ve found I need a routine,” she says.
“Getting dressed every day is huge, it’s an enormous source of strength for me. Putting on make-up is the same, I do it every day. I like looking like myself, it makes me feel better.
“Most days, I sit in the conservatory for at least an hour, in my wheelchair, brushing my hair and putting on mascara and lippy. I’ve found it’s really weirdly important to me, more so than ever.
“I get upset now that I can’t wear my really nice jewellery and my rings, especially. I keep telling Seb it would be nice to buy some diamond earrings in my final days — for Ellie to inherit. Luckily for him, I can’t actually get to the shops.”
What once was a mundane part of Debs’ day, cooking for her family, has become one of the things she treasures most — despite not really being hungry.
She says: “It’s weird — I don’t really eat much — but the act of finding a recipe, buying the ingredients, or sending my mum to get them, and then helping chop, doing what I can, brings me real comfort.”
It is likely the teacher in her, but Debs has always loved crafting and making things, and the last few weeks have been no different.
While we are on the phone, she sends her mum, Heather, off to Hobbycraft to buy a canvas and paints so daughter Eloise can paint a picture of the Queen for the family’s Jubilee bash.
“Even just watching Ellie make things is bringing me so much joy, at the moment,” Debs tells me. “I’m still finding making things like Lego really relaxing — it allows me to escape a bit.”
When I ask Debs what the hardest part of dying is — aside from leaving loved ones — she is as brutally honest as ever. “It’s the pressure to make memories,” she admits. “It’s a really hard thing to do when you’re dying.
“People say, ‘Just enjoy time with your kids’. Of course, that’s what I want to do but I feel exhausted, sick and in pain and I can’t move, so it limits what you can do. Making memories is really, really hard when you don’t have the physical capacity.”
Rather than big, grand events, Debs and her family are focusing on the small things, such as the sleepover her sister Sarah organised last week. “I cried and cried — it was so special,” Debs says. “
We roped my brother Ben in, too. I love the picture of the three of us together.”
The deepening bond with her siblings has been Debs’ guiding light during this, her darkest time. “It’s been the best our relationships have ever been,” she says, her voice cracking as she gets tearful.
“We’ve always been really close, but the last few weeks have been mind-blowing. It’s interesting, at the end of your life, who you want around you.
“My parents have been amazing, Seb and the kids too. But, oh my God, my sister and brother . . . I couldn’t be doing this without them. It makes me so emotional, I’m going to cry. They are incredible.
“We started our lives together and now, in my final days, they are here with me, they get me.
“They are probably two of the only people I haven’t told to ‘f*** off’ this week. I can’t really describe how they are getting me through this.”
But Debs adds that her husband, her rock, is just as important a support. She says: “He’s practical, he’s got a lot of things to do — like signing Do Not Resuscitate forms for his wife, and looking after the kids. It’s weighing heavy on him.
“Different people are here for me in different ways, and each and every one of them is special to me, in their own ways.”
With memories in mind, Debs reveals her daughter and niece planned a family Jubilee party, with cake and all the trimmings.
And now, one of her favourite things to do with her daughter and son is to let them open and read aloud the steady stream of letters that continue to arrive at her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey — all sent by strangers taking a gamble that Royal Mail knows where to deliver them.
“The kids love it, they open them every morning with me, and they love the quirkier ones,” she laughs.
But on the subject of the kids, Debs tells me she finds it hard, them seeing her like this. “It’s been so lovely having them home for half-term,” she says.
“But I hate the idea of them seeing me at my worst, you know, having my are wiped. I don’t want them remembering me this way.”
The thought brings her back to her anger, her rage at life running out and her days being numbered. She says: “Yesterday, I told everyone to ‘go f** themselves’, I almost didn’t want to see anyone.
“I understand now why animals take themselves off to die. No one can fix me. Everyone has an opinion on what I should do, whether I should take these drugs or not.
“It’s because they care — it’s all out of love and nobody wants to see me in pain. It must be as painful for them as it is for me. This is happening to them too.
“Everyone is trying to make this as dignified as possible for me, but the reality is, I’m sitting here talking to you in a nappy. I have to be lifted everywhere. It feels so far removed from the Debs I love.”
What is clear to me as I hang up, fearing it is the last time I will speak to my friend and colleague, is that she is still the Debs I love.