Mom who lived through oral cancer shares story, gives advice

Oral Cancer
Posted at 7:21 PM, Apr 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-29 20:21:14-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A mother never thought she'd be at-risk. None of the warning signs applied to her. She still ended up with a very scary diagnosis. She's ready to share her story to give a warning and words of advice to others.

Having a mom who's a certified personal trainer means having a mom with opinions on those after-school snacks.

"I do," smiled Natalie Hennes. "That's not usually the snacks they prefer. They're all about Nutella. The good stuff."

"It's a little hot out tonight, we need you hydrated for soccer," she told her two daughters. "How bout some kiwi?"

Natalie was once a Division I soccer player, and her girls might just do the same one day.

Eating right. Exercising. Never touching a cigarette. Natalie never thought she'd be the one to have this happen.

"I noticed what I thought was a canker sore along the gum line, under the tongue," said Natalie.

When it didn't go away, she went to see an oral surgeon.

"She had tears in her eyes and said, 'this is not anything I expected to tell you, but you have cancer, squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity.' Typically, it's a low survival rate depending how early it's caught. That's the moment that changed our lives."

Treatment at Vanderbilt University Medical Center began.

"They removed part of my tongue," said Natalie. "They removed my gum line, four teeth, the floor of my mouth."

Natalie never stopped thinking like an athlete.

"Told us they'd have to use the tissue from my arm and an artery cause they'd need the blood flow for reconstructing my tongue," she said. "I said, 'do my left wrist so I can play tennis again!'"

Natalie went through a nine-hour surgery.

"I couldn't speak at all," she said. "My left arm was in a cast."

It was in the long, hard weeks that followed, Natalie made a list.

One. Speak again.

"I had to go through weeks and weeks of speech therapy," she said.

Two. Play tennis again.

"I played tennis in the spring," Natalie said.

Three. Share her story.

Now, she's here to advise people to get screened for oral cancer and know this;

"I'm not at risk, and it still happened to me," Natalie said. "Get a plan in place, find your support system and seek out hope. People will be there when things get hard in life."