SIOUX CITY | Debi Durham is happy to report her eight-month battle with uterine cancer is nearing an end.
In an interview with the Journal Wednesday, Durham, Iowa's economic development director and a Sioux City resident, for the first time publicly shared her story as a cancer survivor, which started with a diagnosis in February.
"I called the doctor and said, 'I think there is something wrong. I need to get in,'" Durham recalled. "When I told them my symptoms, they concurred it was something that couldn't be put off. I got a call less than a week after that it was cancer ... I knew it was not going to be a good diagnosis, so I was somewhat prepared for it. But I have to tell you, I'm a person of faith. I've had perfect peace from day one on this cancer journey."
Surgery was performed almost immediately afterwards in Omaha in early March. She then went through multiple chemotherapy treatments in Sioux City. Today she is in the final stage of radiation treatment in Des Moines, all while still fulfilling her duties leading the state's Economic Development Authority.
"I have to say, treatments aren't easy, but overall, I've done very, very well and maintained pretty much a full-work schedule the entire time, which I think has helped me at least mentally and emotionally," she said, expressing gratitude to her family and IEDA team. "There were days where I could not do what I needed to do and they were quick to step in. So I have not let cancer define who I am. I don't think about it every day. I focus on my treatment and getting well."
Durham served as president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce and The Siouxland Initiative for 15 years before then-Gov. Terry Branstad picked her to lead the IEDA in 2011. In between treatments, Durham was able to attend a trade mission trip to Israel last month with Gov. Kim Reynolds, the former lieutenant governor who succeeded Branstad this spring after he resigned to become U.S. Ambassador to China.
While Durham shared her diagnosis with family and friends, including a post on her personal Facebook page in March, she said she was reluctant to discuss her illness publicly as a way of "controlling the story" of her cancer journey. And now with a good prognosis, she wants to give back.
"When I finally started telling people, an individual wrote to me that knew cancer too well. Not only he had it, but his wife (had it too.) He said 'Debi, welcome to the cancer club. You are going to realize it is a very big one. You will be overwhelmed with the outpouring of support. Accept it with grace and find a way to pay it forward."
Durham said throughout treatments she found it troubling some health insurance policies do not cover the purchase of expensive wigs for those, like herself, that lose their hair through the course of treatment.
"I think that is unfortunate," she said. "Whether a woman wants to wear a wig or not after cancer treatment ... it not being affordable (shouldn't) be the impediment to that."
As a result, Durham agreed to co-host a fundraiser/cocktail party dubbed “Wig Out” Thursday at the June E. Nylen Cancer Center, where she has received treatment. Tickets to the private fundraiser quickly sold out.
"One hundred percent of the proceeds are going to the Cancer Center for wigs because they give away a lot of wigs and I think that is something insurance company's need to reevaluate," she said. "But it is one of those things that is part of the cancer journey ... It's a small thing that I can do to pay it forward."
Durham says she will have a few more doctor's visits every few months but, for the most part, all indications point to her winning the battle with cancer.
"I'm a new grandmother," she said. "I plan on being, God willing, there to see my grandchild grow up ... I said to someone one day, I have never cried over cancer but when I found out I was going to be a grandmother, I wept for a week."