WILL PINKSTON | The Sun
Gruen Von Behrens, spokesman for Oral Health America's National Spit Tobacco Education Program and an oral cancer survivor, speaks to health care workers Tuesday at Lourdes hospital about the dangers of smokeless tobacco use.
No matter how blatant a story the facts can tell, sometimes the only way to appeal to a person’s common sense is through a strong dose of realism.
Authorities can recite the statistics of how chewing tobacco is estimated to contain 28 carcinogens and can lead to multiple forms of cancer, but it’s the scars left behind from a hard-fought battle with oral cancer that really gets the message across, said Gruen Von Behrens, spokesman for the National Spit Tobacco Education Program.
An oral cancer survivor, Von Behrens has traveled throughout the United States and Canada to tell his story of survival and show children the impact his youthful choices have made on the rest of his life.
On a camping trip when he was 13, Von Behrens and his friends tried chewing tobacco for the first time.
“At first it was a game to me,” Von Behrens said. “It was a game to see who could hold that tobacco there the longest and get the most use out of it. To see who the tobacco would make sick, then make fun of that person for getting sick.”
Becoming addicted to the substance, Von Behrens continued his dip obsession into high school and it wasn’t until he developed white spots on his tongue at 16 that he became concerned something was wrong.
Months passed as he continued to use dip until one day his tongue split. Knowing the likely cause of the ailment, he initially hid his malady from his mother, blaming his drooling and slurred speech on wisdom tooth pain.
When his mother surprised him with a visit to the dentist, it was confirmed that Von Behrens had developed squamous cell carcinoma.
“That day, I’ve never seen my mom cry like that,” he said. “It ripped her heart out.”
Less than a week later, Von Behrens would undergo a 13-hour surgery that would claim his lower jaw, a third of his tongue, lymph nodes and a portion of his neck. Almost 17 years later, he still has one last surgery scheduled — topping out at 35 surgeries and more than $3 million in medical bills — to reconstruct what was lost.
“I was very naive that this was the end effect,” he said. “If we all closed our eyes and I said envision a drunk driving accident, we can all picture a banged up car, but whenever you close your eyes and I say oral cancer, not always do people imagine this.”
Nationally, about 35,000 people every year will be diagnosed with oral cancer and about 8,600 will die, according to American Cancer Society statistics.
Talking to more than 3 million students across the country, Von Behrens said his message is particularly important in Kentucky.
According to Kentucky Cancer Program statistics, nearly 25 percent of the state’s middle and high school students use tobacco products including snuff and dip.
Jamie Smith, cancer control specialist for the program, said the state has one of the highest percentages for tobacco derivative cancers. As oral cancer is on the rise, so too is the prevalence of smokeless tobacco-use in students.
“They feel like they can hide it more than cigarettes,” Smith said. “It’s easy to become addicted to it. They try it once and they think it’ll be easy to quit, but it’s not.”
As was the case with Von Behrens, oral cancer tends to start out with mouth sores and spots, easily noticed during a routine dental examination or X-ray. Smith recommended two yearly dental appointments to ensure spots can be caught early if they emerge.
“Once it develops, it can be pretty extensive to what it can impact and, of course, people have lost parts of their jaws and tongues, so kids need to see that and understand that can happen.”
Which is why Von Behrens’ message is particularly effective, she said.
“He’s a prime example of how fast this can happen,” she said.
Von Behren’s program has taken him from school campuses to national television and as far as U.S. Congress. He currently is helping make a push to eliminate chewing tobacco in Major League Baseball. But Von Behrens refuses to preach to people against using smokeless tobacco and instead wishes only to educate.
“I just want people to have a clear picture and decide for themselves whether or not they want to do this to themselves,” he said.
Call Will Pinkston, a Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.