When Rick Bender was about 12, a lot of his friends were starting to smoke. He didn't want anything to do with cigarettes, but he heard about the "safe alternative," also called "smokeless tobacco" and he went for it. He began chewing tobacco and quickly switched to Copenhagen snuff, ground tobacco that one sucks between the gum and cheek.
That was 23 years ago. Today Bender uses his ravaged face as a telling visual aid in his campaign against tobacco.The squamous cell cancer that the snuff caused nearly killed him. He lost the right side of his jaw, a third of his tongue, lymph glands and nerves. He can raise his right arm only to shoulder level because of nerve loss.
The cancer formed in his soft tissue, not his jaw. But an infection hit his jawbone during the period he was receiving radiation therapy. "Because of the radiation my body was not able to fight the infection," he said. The infection turned his bone into slivers.
"I had slivers of bone coming out of the right side of my face," he said. Four operations - one for the cancer, three to remove disintegrating bone - turned his face into a Halloween mask.
Bender, a resident of Roundup, Mont., campaigns across the country against the use of all tobacco products. He is on speaking tour sponsored by the Utah Department of Health, visiting 15 schools in three days.
In a Deseret News interview he recalled the days when he started using tobacco. He was influenced by ads saying, "take a pinch instead of a puff." The pitch implied that tobacco you chew or suck on was safe, while cigarettes weren't.
"Safe alternative to cigarettes," he said bitterly. "I fell for it. Biggest lie I was ever told."
Another reason he used it was that he loved baseball. He played Little League and high school ball and had a chance to play in the minor leagues. And ballplayers were some of the biggest users of chewing tobacco and what he calls "spittin' tobacco," snuff.
Rebecca Murphy, the department's community health specialist who was shepherding Bender to appointments Monday, showed a 1985 advertisement for Copenhagen. It says, "Sooner or later - it's Copenhagen."
The reason for that prediction is that Copenhagen has a high nicotine content. Youngsters may start out using chewing tobacco or snuff with lower levels, but eventually they graduate to more potent brands.
Murphy said it's important to reach students with the plain facts as Bender presents them. It's an important crusade, because "we are working against a billion-dollar industry that knows how to reach kids. Otherwise they would never be able to sell such a defective product."
Twelve or 13 years after he started using tobacco as a child, a persistent sore developed on Bender's tongue. "I ignored it because, for the most part, I'd seen little bumps and sores on my mouth since high school." He now realizes that most of them were probably precancerous lesions.
In fact, the big one might have been easily treated if he had gone to a doctor when it showed up. But he waited until about Christmas 1988, when it was the size of a dime. A doctor took a biopsy and it turned out to be an extremely aggressive form of cancer.
He went in for surgery on April 19, 1989, nine days before his 27th birthday. The surgery took 12 hours and the cancer had spread beyond the site where the doctor believed it to be confined.
"He (the surgeon) came out and told my dad and my wife, `I don't think I've got it all.' " He thought Bender would live about two more years. But it turned out that Bender was lucky. The surgeon did get it all.
"If they hadn't gotten it, I wouldn't be here today. It's an extremely aggressive form of cancer and the younger and healthier a person is, the more aggressive it will be on their body . . . Under the age of 30 the survival rate is almost zero."
Neither he nor his doctor has any doubt that tobacco caused the cancer.
When he talks to schoolchildren, he tells them tobacco is a poison, that when a person first tries it and he gags or coughs, his body is trying to say that this is a poison. He tells them, "Tobacco's tobacco. I don't care if you roll it, smoke it in a pipe, stuff it or chew it - it can give you cancer and kill you."
He tells them tobacco is "the only product sold in the United States that, if used per the manufacturer's recommendations, will kill you."
He talks about ways to quit: stopping cold turkey, going to group therapy or using nicotine patches or pills. Students react positively to him. Recently a sophomore or junior in a California high school told him, "I had no idea. I'm going to try and quit. Can you take this can from me?"
Bender shows off the can of chewing tobacco. It is one of his trophies, to add to the collection of 100 or 150 behind his desk, cans people give him on his trips around the country.
Maybe some of the people who gave him cans quit the habit and it saved their lives.
"I'd like to think so," he said. "I mean, I'm not a big churchgoer, but I have my beliefs. And maybe it's the reason God left me here. . . . If I can get just one kid, one kid, from going through whatever I did, kind of makes it all worthwhile, don't it?"