by Jennifer Brookland
Always happy to chatter away, Ysabel Durón was talking up a storm with her three older siblings one night while her mother cooked tortillas on the stove. Her exasperated father erupted from behind his newspaper in the other room. “You kids shut up or I’m going to take you out of that Catholic school!” he boomed.
Durón’s family was poor. The Catholic school in her hometown of Salinas, California, was an expense that might have seemed like an unnecessary extravagance. And two more siblings were still to come. But for her mother, it was a way to show her children that her expectations for them were high and that their futures were bright with possibility.
Durón’s mother drew up her five-foot-one frame and faced her father. “I pay for that school,” she said, swiftly ending the argument as she turned to deftly flip another tortilla. But Durón, who was already a master of observation at age 11 or 12, saw something in their exchange that shaped her understanding of the world. She saw power. She saw determination. She saw independence.
“I thought to myself; if you want to be in charge of yourself, you have to have your own money; a good job; good education,” Durón says. “I connected those dots for myself at that time, and some part of me made a pact that that’s how I’d have to drive my life. If ever anything threatened, I’d do my damnedest to
Durón’s battles started before she even left home, when she followed her dream of becoming a foreign correspondent and applied to the best opportunity she saw: the journalism program at San Jose State University. The college was 50 miles from Salinas, where her mother had risen from the bottom to become a manager at the cannery. Durón never expected her own mother would stand in her way.
“Why don’t you go to local junior college and become a secretary?” her mother suggested. Durón’s mother had dreams for her daughter, but as Durón says, they weren’t her dreams. And they weren’t big enough.
“I recall very clearly saying to her, ‘I don’t care what you say. It’s my life and I have to take care of it now,’” Durón says. “I knew clearly what I had to do and that I was in charge of me and that I would push back, even against a mother who was so supportive.”
Durón continued pushing and charting her own course. That move to San Jose was her first stride toward claiming the independence she yearned for. Plenty more followed. As Durón climbed the ladder of the broadcast journalism world in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, first as a reporter and, before long, an Emmy-winning anchor, she never shied away from the tough issues: she covered everything from school shootings, the influx of Guatemalan refugees, and social justice movements to failures in the country’s education system.
For Durón, it was imperative to provide news and stories that were honest and real, no matter how hard. “I tell people the truth and sometimes they’re not ready for it,” she says. Durón pushed herself relentlessly to succeed despite the obstacles, the naysayers, and the loneliness of often being the only woman and the only Latina around. She built a strong backbone and a tolerance for adversity.
Too soon, she would need both. It felt surreal when the doctor told Durón she had cancer. She was 51 years old and felt perfectly healthy. The idea that something growing inside her could kill her didn’t compute.
What made sense to Durón was to do a story about it. That’s how she worked. Durón had made a successful career of using personal stories to illuminate important issues. Here was one that was more personal than ever. “I recognized that I had the tools, opportunity, and lived experience that I could share,” Durón says. “They could read a cancer story every day of their lives, but the minute you put a face to it, they listen and feel something and respond as a result. I had spent a career sticking a mic in people’s faces and asking them to share their pain. Why should I be exempt?”
The camera followed Durón on her first day of chemotherapy, recorded her as she felt the weakest she’d ever been in her life, zoomed in on her exhaustion and her nausea during the 12 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by four weeks of daily radiation treatments. Some nights she came home and collapsed and cried to God to take the pain away.
But every weekend, no matter how she felt, Durón arose, put on her makeup, and went to work at the television station. She cut her hair down to the nubbins. She worked with her producer to turn her journey into a three-part series on her battle, focused on advances in cancer research, support groups, and other issues related to women and men affected by cancer. “I was determined to be in control of it instead of it being in control of me,” she says.
Durón felt incredibly fulfilled by the award-winning “Life with Cancer” series. She received letters from people who related to her struggle and found inspiration in the way she covered it. Those letters, for her, reflected the reasons she’d become a journalist in the first place.
But she was feeling less and less fulfilled by her career. The cancer diagnosis never shook Durón to her core—never made her reevaluate her life and her priorities. But as she reflected on her work, Durón began to wonder if the cancer was a manifestation of a toxic environment she had started to enjoy less and less. The Internet was about to change journalism irrevocably; she didn’t think her editors were paying attention. She was starting to feel more like a tool than a craftsperson. And she realized she was never going to become the foreign correspondent she had always dreamed of being.
Having cancer forced Durón to pause. “I stopped long enough in this illness to hear that I wanted something more in this time,” she says.
So when researchers from the Cancer Prevention Institute of California turned to Durón for help reaching out to low-income Latina women with breast cancer, she said yes. “I didn’t retire,” Durón says. “I just kept moving.”
In 2003, Durón founded Latinas Contra Cancer, an organization that increases access to quality care, educates individuals on the importance of early detection and screening, works to decrease mortality rates, and improves the quality of the healthcare experience.
Almost everyone needs education, screenings, psychosocial support, and hands-on help navigating the healthcare system, but Latino culture can affect the way both men and women seek treatment. And patients with limited English proficiency are among the most vulnerable populations—prey to more medical errors and worse clinical outcomes, according to the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics. Cancer is now the leading cause of death among Latinos.
Based in San Jose, California, Latinas Contra Cancer is raising awareness in the local Latino community and also adding a sometimes-forgotten voice to the national conversation on cancer.
“In a way, it’s one person at a time; if you can impact their lives, you win,” Durón says. “I’m not afraid to fail. But I’m committed to make change.”
The dogged approach Durón refined as a journalist makes her a tireless—and courageous—nonprofit leader. The traits she developed over years of hunting down stories and asking the tough questions equipped her to barge in where others fear to tread.
“I sit at tables where I sometimes feel my voice is loud and shrill, but I refuse not to talk,” she says. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is to talk even when you’re afraid.”
Durón won an Encore.org Purpose Prize in 2013, the same year she officially ended her career as a journalist. Journalism will always be Durón’s passion, she says. But now, fighting cancer is her mission. And as someone who’s been calling the shots for most of her life, she intends to keep pushing.
“I am doing something of value and self-value, and that is where all humans want to be in their lives whether they admit it or recognize it or not,” Durón says. “I want to know that I helped somebody. I want to go out the door knowing I left a footprint.”
American Cancer Society, “Cancer Facts & Figures for Hispanics/Latinos 2015-2017”, 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Cervical Cancer Rates by Race and Ethnicity”, 2015.
National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, “Cervical Cancer & Latinxs: The Fight for Prevention & Health Equity Fact Sheet”, 2017.