Port Richey woman moves on with life after two cancer diagnoses

Facing two types of cancer taught Terri Hesse to just enjoy life.
Published February 26 2015
Updated February 27 2015


Terri Hesse keeps the photo handy, ready to show to anyone with just a few finger swipes to her cell phone.

"Does that look like skin cancer to you?" she asks, holding up the selfie she snapped of the small, pink and white spot that showed up on her backside a couple of years ago.

To the average person, probably not.

It resembled a blister, Hesse thought, the kind that tear up your heels when you're breaking in a new pair of shoes.

But early on, Hesse, 55, knew something was off. The persistent, burning itch along with a nagging inner feeling made her know it wasn't normal, even though her spot didn't look like any of the examples of skin cancer that, as a nurse, she had seen time and again.

"It wasn't big. It wasn't black. It wasn't raised. It wasn't multicolored. It didn't have irregular borders," Hesse said. "It wasn't anything you would ever think skin cancer would look like."

And it was on her left buttock — not a typical place for skin cancer.

Hesse kept an eye on it. It didn't appear to be growing — but it didn't go away either. And the itch never let up. So, after a couple of months, she booked an appointment with her dermatologist..

The doctor wasn't alarmed. Even so, she lanced it for biopsy, "just to be sure."

"I didn't think much of it," Hesse said.

Ten days later, she got a call. The doctor wanted her to come in.

Hesse, a divorced mother of twin adult sons who is known for her calm, steady nature, knew that wasn't good.

"They generally don't call you in to the office to tell you everything is okay," she said.

It ended up being worse than she imagined — Stage 3 nodular melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer that grows vertically and deep, rather than horizontally, as most skin cancers do. In this case, it had already spread.

It was a one-two punch of sorts.

Hesse was already undergoing treatment for chronic myloid leukemia, which had been discovered through routine blood work in 2010.

By cancer standards, that diagnosis was almost a relief, Hesse said with a chuckle.

"I thought, 'I have leukemia, but I have the good one.' I take one pill a day, and it's manageable — under control."

This diagnosis was different.

In June 2013, Hesse underwent two surgeries to have 14 lymph nodes removed, as well as a painful muscle transposition procedure to cover the femoral nerves in her groin that had been exposed.

"That surgery is not an easy surgery to get over," Hesse said.

But she shook off the "why me?" attitude, opting to move forward and embrace life.

Just three months after surgery, Hesse returned to work at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital. When she found it difficult to be on her feet for 12-hour shifts, she was proactive in signing up for vocational counseling through Cigna Health Insurance Co. That helped her negotiate a work schedule she could build on, starting with eight-hour shifts in the emergency room doing triage, as well as tending to patients.

Cigna directed Hesse to Achilles International, a nonprofit partner that provides fitness training and helps set goals for those with long-term disability issues. Hesse's ambition was a 5K race that took place in January at Disney World in Orlando. Cigna and Achilles sponsored 34 athletes.

"It felt really great. The Cigna and Achilles team was awesome," Hesse said. "We were out in the Epcot parking lot at 4:30 in the morning. It was 37 degrees, and the wind chill was about 20. We saw the sun rise."

Hesse, who had trained on her treadmill at home, wasn't completely back in the game. She ended up splitting the race, walking and running alongside her son, Bryan Hesse, 27, who along with his brother, Nick, is a deputy with the Citrus County Sheriff's Office.

Even so, she found new inspiration through a fellow athlete — a veteran and double amputee who participated in five races over four consecutive days.

"To me that's an incredible story," Hesse said. "I'm just a person who was unlucky enough to be diagnosed with two different types of cancer."

While Hesse is humble — almost embarrassed to talk about the strides she has made in comparison — others find inspiration in her story.

"She does not play the victim," said Hesse's vocational counselor, Jaclyn Sphon. "She's been devoted in her training and doing what she wanted to do — being active, being a nurse."

"She is very much a glass-half-full kind of person — she's always looking for adventure," said her son, Nick, noting that his independent-minded mom has turned the tables on a diagnosis that might have sent others spiraling. "After the first (cancer diagnosis), she was like, 'Well maybe it's just my turn.' But after the second diagnosis, you have to wonder, how much does one person have to put up with in life?"

Their mother has had setbacks, but lives her life to the fullest, said Bryan Hesse.

"She plays golf. She's been on cruises. She goes out to dinner with her girlfriends. She just enjoys herself," he said. "She lives every day like it is on purpose."

That is true. Terri Hesse doesn't sweat the small stuff anymore.

Her leukemia is in check. "But with melanoma, it depends on your stage," Hesse said. "I'm Stage 3, and so you're always waiting for the other shoe to fall — for it to come back. That can be difficult to live with.

"Sometimes my house isn't so clean, my laundry is backed up. Time is precious. I will never, ever stay home and clean house when I have the chance to do something with my kids or to be with my friends and do something."

Including getting the word out about a sneaky type of cancer that took her by surprise, and the importance of following a gut feeling.

"I'm a nurse, and I thought I would know what melanoma looked like," Hesse said. "I really want to get it out there, and that is my big thing. I don't mind showing this picture to anyone."

Michele Miller can be reached at mmiller@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.