Chewing tobacco risks stressed

Gruen Von Behrens began chewing tobacco at age 17, got hooked and developed mouth cancer that has left him seriously disfigured but keen to warn students of the risks of tobacco.

By JOE MATYAS

At 16, Gruen Von Behrens was a handsome high school baseball star — a 5’10”, 190-lb., .400 hitter. He was considered a prospect for a university or college sports scholarship.

Now 32, Von Behrens has a disfigured face rebuilt from bone and muscle from one of his legs and, in his own words, a voice that sounds as if he has socks in his mouth.

“This is the face of tobacco,” the Illinois man told Saunders secondary school students at a London assembly yesterday.

“If it scares you or makes you cry, that’s good . . . I hope my face and the sound of my voice sticks with you and helps you to make the right choice about tobacco.”

Introduced to chewing or spitting tobacco at 13, Von Gruen was soon hooked, going through a half a can a day.

At 16, he noticed a small white spot on his tongue. It grew into a full-blown cancer that split his tongue and destroyed the inside of his mouth.

At 17, he had 13 hours of surgery that began with doctors slitting his neck, ear to ear, and peeling the flesh back to remove cancer. “Little did I know my battle had just begun,” he said.

He’s had 33 surgeries and radiation treatments costing $3 million.

“I went from the person people looked up to to the one people looked at . . . and whispered about,” he said. “I hear kids say, ‘mommy, mommy, look at him. Why does he look so scary?”‘

Despite all his suffering, Von Behrens said he’s thankful “for the gifts God has given me.”

He said his disfigurement has taught him to appreciate the important things in life.

“When your life is caving in and it looks like you have nowhere to go, 99 times out of 100 your parents will be there no matter what. Von Behrens said his mother was devastated when she learned he had cancer, but “that woman stood by my bed, held my hand and cried every tear with me. . . “He confessed that as a cool teenager he’d put his mom on the “backburner” until he needed her. He found he still had friends. He met “a beautiful woman” who became his wife. They have two kids, two and four months old.

Von Behrens said he’s living proof that “spit tobacco” isn’t a safe alternative to smoking.

It’s a message he’s given at hundreds of high schools in Canada and the U.S. His visit was sponsored by the Middlesex-London health unit, Smoke Free Ontario and One Life Crew.

Public health nurse Patricia O’Connor said the use of spitting tobacco has been rising among London teens, while smoking has declined.

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