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The perils of ‘spit tobacco’

Rick Bender, mouth cancer survivor.This week students at the middle and high schools are getting a closeup look at the effects of smoking and chewing tobacco as part of a national campaign that culminates with the 18th annual Kick Butts Day on March 20.

Nationally known anti-tobacco speaker Rick Bender — a survivor of mouth cancer he attributes to using chewing tobacco as a teenager — shared his story with groups of middle schoolers on March 18 and high schoolers the following day.

Mr. Bender, who started using “spit tobacco” at age 12, opened one session at the middle school on Monday by asking the students if they’ve ever tried the product.

Only a few hands went up. But when he asked if they knew anyone who used dip regularly, nearly all the students raised their hands.

Mr. Bender of Sarasota, FL grew up in California and played baseball in high school, which was part of the reason he started using a couple of cans of dip per week. He said his aversion to cigarettes and peer pressure also contributed to his habit, which increased to one can every other day by the end of high school.

By 1988, Mr. Bender, then in his mid-20s, was up to a can a day. That’s also about the time he noticed a little sore on the side of his tongue, which was nothing new. Similar sores, appearing as white bumps or rough patches of white tissue in his mouth, had been coming and going for years.

But this time the sore didn’t go away, and instead grew rapidly to the size of dime on his tongue.

“You want to talk about hurt, this thing hurt. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t eat. It was rubbing across my teeth,” Mr. Bender said.

He consulted a family physician who couldn’t diagnose the sore. He was directed to another doctor, who biopsied the growth that proved to be cancer — an undifferiented squamous cell carcinoma to be exact.

 

The “very aggressive, fast growing cancer,” as Mr. Bender described it, was “all because of my use of this stuff right here, spit tobacco,” he said while holding up a small can of the nicotine-laced product.

“That dime size sore was the tip of the iceberg,” said Mr. Bender.

It took more than 12 hours of surgery to remove the tumor, but the operation also left him without part of his tongue, nerve damage that cost him 20 percent of his right arm function and a metal plate used to reconnect his right jaw, which had to be severed to get at the cancer.

Some weeks later an infection from the plate destroyed most of his right jaw. The same infection came back two decades later to take much of his left jaw.

“Twenty years later, I’m still dealing with the consequences of using spit tobacco,” he told the youths.

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