Meet the Models: Debbie First

Debbie First is a force. A powerhouse of a woman. She was one of Runway’s very first models back when we taped Christmas lights to the floor of a country club. And this year, for the 15th anniversary, she’s back.

Debbie was first diagnosed with Ovarian cancer in 1977. It goes without saying that 1977 was a very different time, both generally and for the landscape of women’s cancer. Debbie initially felt an odd “full” feeling in her abdomen; she and her doctors proceeded to watch it for a few months before her OB advised her to have it removed. She went into surgery at Brigham and Women’s and remember waking up to three doctors at the foot of her bed. “They were oncologists.”

At this time, Debbie was 37 with three young children and a career. Her mother-in-law came to visit her when she was recovering from surgery. Debbie recalls telling her “I’m not going to die.” This resolve would stay with Debbie over the next two years of hellish treatment.

At the time, Ovarian cancer was very rare and hardly discussed. Most cases were diagnosed too late and the patients were deemed untreatable. Debbie had a full hysterectomy at 37 and embarked on a journey of healing. Her rock was – and is to this day – her husband, Bob. He took the reins and helped her navigate how to get treated, where, and by whom.

Their friend knew of someone at Dana Farber – Dr. David Livingston, whom Debbie now calls “a genius.” The treatment plan wasn’t common – or easy, but Debbie simply said “Ok” and later states “I guess I was strong – if there’s anything I’ve learned throughout this process of life it’s that resilience matters – a lot.”

This theme of resilience is interwoven into Debbie’s story and being in myriad ways. Whether it’s through her commitment to be an incredible mother and wife, to build and nurture a thriving career, or to help other women going through cancer through the Executive Council and the Susan Smith Center at Dana Farber, Debbie is a woman who rises to whatever challenge she faces.

During her treatment, Debbie turned to fitness and notes it as becoming very important to her. Bob would throw tennis balls for her, she’d continue aerobics, or go on long walks with her friends (which also doubled as cathartic therapy sessions.) All of this was unfolding in a time where Ovarian cancer specifically was so uncommon. Debbie notes “the only person I knew with Ovarian cancer was Gilda Radner and she died. I didn’t want people thinking I would die so everyone assumed I had breast cancer.”

Her treatment was brutal – one week on, two off, and another on – but Bob was the lighthouse in the storm. He picked the kids up, did the shopping, “he did it all.” Debbie says that cancer “was a gift for us in that I survived but also in that we learned as a family, how to navigate and what was important.”

Another big part of the First’s lives is the Pan Mass Challenge, which Bob and Debbie have done for 35 and 26 years, respectively. I think I speak for many when I say committing yourself to 200 miles on a bike for over 20 years is nothing short of incredible. It’s also important to note here that Debbie now “keeps up with” Bob and they ride side-by-side. I think that’s what people mean when they say “#Goals.”

Since her initial diagnosis in 1977, Debbie has, thankfully, been cancer-free. Over the years, she has recommended others get genetic testing, her daughters have gone through it, yet it wasn’t until 2019 that Debbie decided to get tested herself. She discovered she has the BRCA2 mutation . Debbie is still living cancer-free and continues to passionately devote herself to helping other women going through cancer.

Debbie has been on this journey with cancer for years. She’s defied the odds. And she had the courage to question if genetics played a role in her cancer history, which we commend her for as making the choice to do genetic testing is never an easy one.

When asked about the theme of her experience with cancer, she notes “Every choice I’ve made has taken more than I thought I had. I’m always running, I’m always ahead of myself. Having cancer showed me that I want to make a difference.”

She has devoted her life to nonprofits that impact many many women – most of whom she doesn’t even know. “My goal is to give confidence to those who are nervous about what they’re about to embark on.”

It is an honor to welcome back, after 14 years, Debbie First to the Runway stage. She is a true embodiment of Runway – a fierce woman, dedicated mom and wife, community member, and endless giver who devotes much of herself to lifting up other women and passing on the spirit of resilience.