Tobacco can ruin your life, cancer survivor tells...
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Mar 31, 2011  |  Vote 0    0

Tobacco can ruin your life, cancer survivor tells students

Ottawa East News

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 radiation treatments

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 entire jawbone.

“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 to rot.

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 students.

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 smoking.

“He is absolutely inspirational,” said Heidi McKean, a nurse with Ottawa Public Health.

Ottawa This Week - Central

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