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.