In 1983, when Ken Miller was 15, he saw a few students walking across the parking lot at Blue Mountain High School in Schuylkill County.
They were chewing something and spitting, and one of them said to Miller, “Here, try this.”
Miller, then a budding athlete, stuffed a wad of smokeless tobacco in his jaw.
“In 30 seconds,” he recalled, “I felt addicted.”
It took 27 years and throat cancer, but the 43-year-old Reading Express offensive line coach finally quit chewing tobacco.
Now an advocate against the use of smokeless tobacco, Miller recounted his life-threatening battle with the cancer he believes resulted from smokeless tobacco during a talk Monday night in the Muhlenberg Middle School auditorium.
About 100 people, including football players from the Reading Express, attended the hour long session organized by the American Cancer Society.
Barb Bieber, senior cancer control specialist, said chewers of smokeless tobacco have a 60 percent to 80 percent higher risk of developing oral cancer.
“Pennsylvania has twice the national average of people who chew tobacco,” Bieber said. “That disturbing statistic gives the potential for serious health problems.”
Miller, who played football at Blue Mountain and East Stroudsburg University, drew a connection between sports and tobacco use.
“We were hammerhead jocks who walked around with a chew in our mouths,” he recalled. “We thought we were cool, invincible, and that nothing could take us down.”
The stress of performing on the football field and earning good grades, he said, contributed to the addiction. Over the years, he estimated, he put about $30,000 worth of smokeless tobacco into his body.
Miller is cancer free 10 months after he was diagnosed, but suffers side effects of 38 radiation treatments and chemotherapy.
His salivary glands don’t produce enough fluid, hampering his ability to swallow. He constantly sips on bottled water to moisten his throat.
A substitute teacher in Lititz, Lancaster County, Miller urged young people to think of the potential consequences before they start chewing tobacco. Just because there is no smoke, he said, doesn’t mean there are no damaging health effects.
“You don’t have to put tobacco in your body to be cool,” he said.
Miller credited the support of his wife, Tracy, family members and friends with pulling him through. He was so drugged that he has little memory of the three regimens of chemotherapy he endured last summer.
Painful memories linger, however, of his disregard for his health and the jeopardy in which he placed his family.
“When I was diagnosed, I sat and cried for three hours,” the 245-pound former tight end confessed. “I thought, ‘Who is going to take care of my kids?’ ”
He said he’d pace the floor at night, wondering if he’d live to see another sunrise.
“God gave me a second chance,” Miller said. “The head coach upstairs blew his whistle and put me back in the game to talk to younger kids.”
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