Event warns of tobacco
Rick Bender walked onstage at Western Kentucky University's Downing University Center to talk about the devastating effects of his “brand of poison.”
“Copenhagen,” the Cadiz man said as a slide featuring a picture of the smokeless tobacco product flashed across a large screen. “I can't tell you that every single person who uses tobacco will get cancer, but I want to let young people know what happened to me.”
Bender is a survivor of oral cancer, an aggressive, fast-growing type that eventually took away one-third of his tongue, his lower jaw and muscles, nerves and lymph nodes along the side of his neck in a series of operations.
“I lost 25 percent of the use of my arm,” he said as he raised his right arm sideways to about shoulder height. “I can't raise my arm higher than this.”
Bender spoke to nearly 100 students at the second annual Youth Tobacco Conference at Western Kentucky University. Participating schools included Warren Central High School, Edmonson County High School, Barren County High School, Logan County High School, Warren East High School, Bowling Green High School, Allen County-Scottsville High School, Butler County High School and Russellville High School.
Funded by the state, the conference is one of nine across Kentucky. The local program is planned by the State Tobacco Prevention Enhancement Site, the Barren River District Health Department and LifeSkills Regional Prevention Center, LifeSkills prevention specialist Drew Wollin said.
Students also attended two break-out sessions. One included a skit by the Bowling Green Public Library's Storytelling Drama Troupe and the other featured information about advocacy and lobbying by Jason Lisovicz, a general relations specialist for the American Cancer Society's Mid-South Division.
“We try to cover the gamut,” Wollin said. “We want to prevent them from smoking or using tobacco at all, but we also want to get them motivated to do something in the community.”
Bender said he started using what he called “spit tobacco” when he was 12 years old. One reason he started was to fit in with his friends, although they were using tobacco in a different form.
“A lot of my friends smoked cigarettes, but I wanted nothing to do with cigarettes,” he said. “They make you stink, so I said no.”
Smokeless tobacco was also associated with the sport he played - baseball - and commercials and advertisements made it seem like a safer alternative.
“Back in the '70s when I was younger, they still had commercials on TV,” he said. “One of them would tell you to ‘take a pinch instead of a puff.' ”
By 1988, Bender went through a can of snuff daily. It was in February of the same year when he began to notice a sore on the side of his tongue. By then he had been using “spit tobacco” for about 12 years.
“I ignored it,” he said. “I thought it would go away like the rest had, but by spring that little sore was still there.”
He had unsuccessfully tried to quit using smokeless tobacco a couple of times in high school, but this time he managed to quit and the sore healed. However, two weeks before Christmas, the sore returned.
“It grew to the size of a dime, and it hurt,” he said. “I couldn't speak. I couldn't eat. After the first of the year, I couldn't ignore it anymore.”
Bender saw a doctor who did a biopsy and waited a week for the results.
“It was the worst week of my life, waiting to find out if I had cancer,” he said.
Bender hasn't used smokeless tobacco in 18 years. He travels to tell young people his story and warn them against using tobacco and, if they do use it, tells them that they can successfully quit. Besides cancer, it can cause a lot of other complications, including high blood pressure, heart disease and nicotine addiction, he said.
“Tobacco use is rising among young people,” he said. “It is marketed through sports and athletic events.”
Edmonson County High sophomore Katie Madison and junior Kara Grey Wilson said they benefited from attending the conference and believe it is important to be nonsmoking role models for people under 18.
“I learned a lot I didn't know,” Wilson said. “Smokeless tobacco really isn't a good alternative to smoking.”
“(Advertisements) try to show they are harmless, but they really aren't,” she said.