Cancer survivor speaks to students about his experiences with tobacco

Anti-tobacco speaker Gruen Von Behrens told his story on his use of tobacco and battle with oral cancer to students Monday at Marshall Junior High in Clovis and Texico schools. (CNJ staff photo: Leslie Radford)

By Leslie Radford: CNJ Staff writer

If it took scaring the pants off them, that was what Gruen Von Behrens was willing to do.

Disfigured by multiple surgeries to remove cancer that carved off half of his face — a toll he’s paid for dipping smoke-less tobacco starting at 13 — Von Behrens began his campaign against tobacco use Monday morning at Marshall Junior High auditorium in front of hundreds students who hung on his every word.

“I’m not here as a teacher. I’m not here as a preacher. I’m here today as a friend,” said the 27-year-old Stewardson, Ill., resident who travels the country pleading with students not use tobacco products. “I may scare some of you with what I have to say today, but if that’s what it takes to make you not want to use tobacco, I hope I scare the pants off of you.”

“Spit tobacco has ruined my life,” Von Behrens said as he touched his face deformed by cancer. “I remember what it’s like to be good-looking. I remember what it was like to be a teenager. The three most important things in my life then were baseball, food, and women… in that order.”

Marshall freshman Tyler Marney relates to Von Behrens, who said he was a baseball-hopeful in high school.

“I’m an athlete,” said Marney, who plays on the school’s football and basketball teams. “What (Von Behrens) had to say today shocked me. I know that if I smoke or chew, I can’t play sports.”

Seventh-grader Kelby King said the presentation gave her new information to share with her mother, a smoker.

“I’ve told her about what I’ve learned in class on smoking,” King said. “She’s trying to quit. I hope I can influence her to stop now.”

Von Behrens grew up in an Illinois rural farming community, much like that of Clovis and Texico, he said, where chewing and dipping tobacco was common. He first tried spit tobacco as a teen to “fit in.” A few years later, his tongue was covered in white spots and eventually split in half.

He confessed to students he hid his problem from his mother for months.

“I was scared,” he said. “I didn’t want to hurt my mother by telling her what her son had done.”

At 17, Von Behrens was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a common form of oral cancer.

In the fight against cancer, he has endured more than 30 painful surgeries to stay alive, including one radical surgery that removed half his neck muscles, lymph nodes and a portion of his tongue. He said his mother, someone he took for granted before life with cancer, was the only person who stood by his side, fighting with him.

“If you think my friends were there everyday, you’re wrong,” said Von Behrens, who also spoke to students at Texico on Monday afternoon and a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting Monday night in Clovis. “Don’t take people or things in your life for granted. Don’t take life for granted. Think to yourself: Are you willing to go through what I’ve been through?”

The Curry Citizens Concerned About Tobacco sponsored Von Behrens appearance in Clovis and Texico.

Tobacco use in New Mexico:
• High school students who smoke — 36.2 percent

• Male high school students who use smokeless or spit tobacco — 18.9 percent (females use much lower)

• Children under 18 who become new daily smokers each year — 4,900

• Children exposed to secondhand smoke at home — 103,000

• Packs of cigarettes bought or smoked by children each year — 10.8 million

• Adults in New Mexico who smoke — 22 percent (301,900)

Tobacco use in the U.S.:
• The 2003 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance found that 21.9 percent of U.S. high school kids smoke and 11 percent of high school males use spit tobacco.