DEL RIO, Texas — The only way a stranger can recognize Debra Hengst as a cancer survivor is by inquiring about her wrapped tournament boat and truck. Only then will you hear the full story.
Hengst glows with an ever-present smile. She speaks with childlike enthusiasm. It’s not always been that way.
A pink ribbon runs across the white background of the hull from bow to stern of her Skeeter boat. There are cat paw prints on each side. The words “The Surviving Duo” stand out.
“The ‘Surviving Duo’ is my brand but it stands for much more,” she said.
Early in 2010 Hengst’s adopted cat Miss Prissy was struck by an automobile as the two went to check the mail at her home. The cat endured a surgery and long recovery. Hengst nurtured the pet back to health and then suddenly faced a battle of her own.
Hengst was diagnosed with breast cancer in December, just two months before the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open on Lake Lewisville, Texas. She made a bold decision to move ahead regardless of the outcome.
“I decided then and there that I would not let cancer control my life.”
Living up to that focus required courage. Hengst underwent two surgeries within a week in January. She postponed much needed clinical treatments against the advice of her doctors. A few short weeks later she was on the road with boat in tow to Lake Lewisville for the second Open of the season.
Friends assisted Hengst during the tournament with boat trailering, launching and tackle chores. All she had to do was fish and run the boat. Both were painful.
“I was treated on my left side so I was limited to steering the boat with my right hand,” she said. “I had to raise up in my seat to absorb shock from the waves.”
That wasn’t easy after an arctic blast came through northern Texas. High winds and rough water were conditions faced by the anglers. One-hand steering was obviously difficult. So was standing on a casting deck in the waves rocking her boat.
The prevailing pattern of the week revolved around pre-spawn bass gathering on main-lake flats. That meant yanking and retrieving a jerkbait from takeoff until weigh-in time. There was a milk run and lots of running-and-gunning.
“I needed to make a showing to keep in the standings. I made it but it was mentally and physically a tremendous challenge.”
Hengst returned home to San Antonio to face a delayed regime of radiation treatments. The next tournament on Table Rock Lake in Missouri loomed on the calendar.
What normally takes months of post-surgery radiation treatments were concentrated in short order. Hengst endured a regime of 40 sessions in four weeks, at the rate of two each day.
Tournament time came again and Hengst hit the road for Missouri. The tournament was cancelled due to historic flood. She turned around and went back home to Texas. It was a blessing in disguise after the aggressive treatment regime bookended by the tournaments.
Hengst completed the 2011 season and took off the next year for more treatment and recuperation time. In November 2013 the cancer went into remission. Her sponsors enthusiastically agreed to extend support for the current season.
The decision to include her cat in the boat and truck wrap was easy.
“It’s a great awareness vehicle,” she said. “People take pictures of me going down the road. I’m stopped at gas stations. People want to know about it.”
The curious are inspired by her story. Hengst also uses the opportunity to promote mammogram exams to women. Everyone she encounters hears about the importance of regular physical exams, men included.
Now she’s back on the tournament trail. The grit and determination are there and so is the dedication. Hengst is competing as a pro at the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open presented by Allstate.
“Everything has fallen into place this week,” she said. “Preparation, practice and technique. I have a great feeling about it all.
“During practice even the little things all lined up,” she continued.
Sometimes it takes a life-changing event to make the little things that so often go unnoticed appear to be blessings in disguise.