When he tried chewing tobacco for the first time at age 13, Gruen
Von Behrens would change the course of his entire life.
In the space of four short years, the Illinois teenager
would develop cancer of the mouth and undergo a series of painful surgeries and
Now a 33-year-old father of three and a motivational
speaker, Von Behrens made an appearance at Ridgemont High School on March 24 as
part of a speaking tour to highlight the dangerous reality of tobacco.
“I want the students to see how seriously tobacco has
affected my life,” Von Behrens said.
At age 13, Von Behrens tried chewing tobacco for the first
time and quickly got addicted. By the time he was 17,
he was diagnosed with oral cancer.
His battle with cancer forced him
to give up his dream of becoming a major league baseball player and to endure
40 painful surgeries, leaving him severely disfigured.
“I have had a rough road in my life, but you get to learn
from your mistakes and make the best out of it,” he said.
He has lost half of his tongue, all of his teeth and his
“I have lost my entire face because of tobacco,” Van Behrens
told the packed gymnasium. “Every time I look out in the mirror, I ask God, ‘Why
did you do this to me, I wasn’t a bad kid.’ ”
During his time in high school, Van Behrens was a popular
student and a local baseball star.
Three years after he started using chewing tobacco, Van
Behrens started noticing white spots on the inside of his mouth. He said knew
immediately it was cancer.
In the beginning, the spots were about the size of a pencil
tip. Less than a year later, the cancer had spread to cover his entire tongue,
making it almost impossible to speak or eat properly.
Then one day, his mother picked him up for a shopping trip,
but when they drove right past the mall, Von Behrens realized they were
actually going to see his doctor.
“As soon as the doctor looked inside my mouth, he knew I was
sick with cancer,” said Von Behrens.
The news of his cancer took an awful toll on his mother,
leaving her devastated.
“I've never seen my mother cry like that before,” he said.
Von Behrens said the subsequent radiation treatment was one
of the most awful things he’s ever gone through, causing his teeth and jawbone
At 19, he had all of his teeth pulled out. Doctors removed
Von Behrens' fibula, broke it into pieces, and reconstructed his jaw bone. They
also grafted some skin from his thigh onto his face.
“I hope what you heard and saw will help you make good
choices about tobacco,” Von Behrens told the attentively listening crowd of
He now travels North America, telling his story to show
children and teens how tobacco can ruin their health and their future.
“I moved from a person people used to look up to, to someone
they can’t look at,” he said.
While Tobacco companies continue to seek out new customers
by adding flavours such as fruit and mint to chewing tobacco, Von Behrens’
message aims to remind young people that it is not a safe alternative to
“He is absolutely inspirational,” said Heidi McKean, a nurse
with Ottawa Public Health.
Ottawa This Week - Central