Government

Debi Durham reveals cancer diagnosis: Iowa Economic Development Director wants to 'pay it forward' after her battle

One of Iowa's top development officials tells of her cancer journey

Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, speaks during a Dec. 21, 1016, news conference in the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. In an interview Wednesday, she talked about her eight-month fight against cancer. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, speaks during a Dec. 21, 1016, news conference in the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. In an interview Wednesday, she talked about her eight-month fight against cancer. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

SIOUX CITY — Last month, she was in Israel for more than a week on a trade mission with Gov. Kim Reynolds. The month before that, she helped shepherd through nearly $20 million of tax incentives to land an Apple Inc. data center outside of Des Moines.

All the while, Debi Durham, one of Iowa’s top development officials, withheld from the public something she had confided in her family: In addition to helping make the big deals, she was coping with cancer.

In an interview Wednesday with the Journal, Durham — Iowa’s economic development director and a Sioux City resident — for the first time publicly shared her story as a cancer survivor.

It started with a diagnosis in February.

“I called the doctor and said, ‘I think there is something wrong. I need to get in,’” she 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 1 on this cancer journey.”

She is happy to report the eight-month battle with uterine cancer is nearing an end.

Surgery was performed in Omaha, Neb., in March, almost immediately after the diagnosis. She then went through multiple chemotherapy treatments in Sioux City. Now 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 workplace 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 development authority in 2011.

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While Durham shared her diagnosis with family and friends, she said she was reluctant to discuss her illness publicly as a way of “controlling the story” about 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, who lose their hair in 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 dubbed “Wig Out” today at the June E. Nylen Cancer Center in Sioux City, where she has received treatment. Tickets to the 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 companies 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 visits every few months but, for the most part, all indications point to her winning the battle.

“I plan on being, God willing, there to see my grandchild grow up ..., ” she said. “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.”

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