Cancer Survivor Speaks To Students About Using Tobacco
When Gruen VonBehrens started dipping Copenhagen tobacco at age 13, he had no idea he would be fighting cancer by the time he was 17.
VonBehrens spoke Thursday to seventh-grade students at Liberty Middle School about his fight with cancer caused by using tobacco. He told the students that he was there to speak to them as their friend so that they could make a better choice in life.
VonBehrens says a group of friends invited him to try snuff. He says he liked the taste of it and he kept using it to fit in with the crowd. He saw a white spot on his tongue, which is common to snuff users. He says the spot began to grow and eventually he had trouble eating. He tried to hide the problem from his mom.
VonBehrens told his mom that his wisdom teeth were coming in. His mom made an appointment at the dentist to remove his wisdom teeth. When she went with him into the dentist’s treatment room, he broke down and told his mother he thought he had cancer and that it wasn’t his teeth.
“I’ve never seen my mom cry like that,” says VonBehrens. “I ripped her heart out.”
VonBehrens told the students that he was scared to death. He knew he would have to face surgery to remove the cancer. The next week VonBehrens had a 13-hour surgery and had half of his tongue removed. His battle with cancer had just begun, he says.
VonBehrens had to endure radiation treatments that were painful. At age 19, all of his teeth had to be pulled. He was a sophomore in college.
VonBehrens is 28 years old. He has endured a total of 33 surgeries. He is scheduled for another reconstructive surgery on his face at the end of April. He has been cancer free for 11 years.
“I’m not an actor,” VonBehrens says. “I can’t go to the motel and take this face off.”
People look at me and they’re scared of the man with the monster’s face, VonBehrens says. He told the students that he meant to scare the pants off of them.
VonBehrens told the students that tobacco did this to me. Cancer can be caused by cigarettes, smoking a pipe or cigar or by dipping snuff, VonBehrens says.
“Tobacco is a deadly, addictive drug,” VonBehrens says.
VonBehrens says he is thankful for the life God has given him. He says he hopes his story will make a difference to the students he speaks to.
“Take a look at my face and learn from me,” VonBehrens says. “I hope this helps you make the right choice about tobacco.”
VonBehrens is the national spokesperson for Oral Health America. Blue Ridge Healthcare sponsored the talks. He also spoke at Freedom High School and East Burke Middle School on Thursday. On Friday he is speaking at Heritage Middle School at 8:00 a.m., College Street Academy at 10:00 a.m. and at East Burke High School at 2:00 p.m.
On the Net: To learn more about VonBehrens visit www.oralhealthamerica.org or www.nstep.org.