During the day the students attended various workshops to learn how
to make smart choices early in their lives to avoid consequences
that could adversely affect them the rest of their lives.
Discussions about alcohol, drugs, safe driving and more give the
youngsters a day worth of information on how to cope with the
choices they will be facing in the next few years.
For the keynote address, area sixth- and eighth-graders were also
invited to hear Gruen Von Behrens speak about the dangers of tobacco
use. As the Hargrove Chapel filled, there was a great deal of noise
as students visited. Once Von Behrens began to speak, you could
have heard a pin drop.
Gruen, from Stewardson, repeatedly apologized to students if he
sometimes was hard to understand. That's because the 27-year-old is
an oral cancer survivor who, after using chewing tobacco for only
two years, developed oral cancer by the age of 19. Von Behrens has
had 34 operations, which have left him without half his tongue,
lower teeth, jawbone and neck muscles.
Von Behrens gave the students his entire story, leaving out no
details, as he told of the ordeal he has had to face battling cancer
Gruen was just 13 and on a camp-out with friends when one pulled
out a can of snuff he'd stolen from his father's dresser drawer.
"I thought, 'Why not?'" Gruen said. "I was 13. I had not a care
in the world. So I took a dip. At first it made me kind of sick and
real dizzy. Next thing I knew I was addicted."
By age 14 Gruen Von Behrens was seriously hooked on nicotine. At
his peak he was consuming more than half a can a day.
Then it happened. At 16 he noticed a small white spot on his
tongue, a spot that would gradually start to grow.
Gruen told students how he knew something was gradually eating
away at his tongue and said he was slowly beginning to realize that
he likely had cancer. He decided to hide it from his mother, a
He said: "I went into the bathroom and raised my head up. 'Why is
this happening to me, God? I'm a good person. Please make this go
When his mother kept asking why he was slurring his speech,
drooling and why food would sometimes fall out of his mouth while he
was eating, he'd tell her that it was his wisdom teeth bothering
Gruen had to tell the truth when his mother surprised him with a
dentist appointment to have his wisdom teeth removed. It was then
that he had to tell his mother as well as the dentist he had oral
cancer. Gruen said it was obvious as the disease was splitting his
"I never saw my mother cry so hard in my life," he told the quiet
Doctors gave him a one in five chance of survival going into his
"At 17, you're not supposed to think about life-and-death
issues," he said.
Gruen told how bad he felt for his family waiting for him to come
out of a 13-hour surgical procedure to remove the cancerous tumor
and adjoining tissue. Gruen said the radiation treatments made him
lose 70 pounds in just six weeks.
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During that time he would also lose the skin on his face, his
mouth would become a blistery white mess, and his teeth would rot.
At 19 years old, doctors transplanted three inches of bone from
his back to his face to give him a jaw. The transplant lasted two
days. Then his body rejected it.
Now, 33 operations later, at age 27, his lower face severely
disfigured, his lower teeth and jawbone gone, half his tongue and
neck muscle missing, his face patched with skin and muscle from his
back, Gruen is on a mission to try to keep other youngsters from
making the same mistake he did.
Gruen doesn't shy away from letting people see what has happened
"I'm not wearing a mask. This isn't something I can take off when
I want," he told the students.
Gruen is working hard, having traveled to 26 states as a
spokesman with the National Spit Tobacco Education Program to
correct the false belief that smokeless tobacco is a safe
alternative to smoking.
"I wish someone came to me when I was experimenting and using it
and I saw how he or she looked and talked," he added. "I used to be
good-looking. I was the guy all the girls wanted to date. I was a
good baseball player, but I can't play now. Doctors have cut skin
from my leg to cover my face wounds and taken muscles from my chest
to rebuild the floor of my mouth."
Gruen took a jab at macho, rugged and carefully crafted tobacco
advertisements like the ones often seen at rodeos. The tobacco
industry touts its spit tobacco products as a "safer alternative to
cigarettes," but Gruen will be the first to tell you that just isn't
"If I had known then what I know now, I never would have put a
dip in my mouth," said Gruen. "Spit tobacco seemed harmless, but it
has ruined my life."
[National Spit Tobacco Education
Program; LDN staff]