Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Former baseball player Rick Bender speaks at UVSC about surviving oral cancer caused by chewing tobacco. He lost part of his tongue and jaw in surgeries.

OREM — He's missing most of his jaw, but being referred to as "the man without a face" is not an insult to Rick Bender.

Bender, a survivor of cancer brought on by years of using chewing tobacco, tells anyone who will listen about the dangers of "spitting tobacco."

He stopped Wednesday at Utah Valley State College to share his story.

"Somebody somewhere is looking up to us as an example, and if we don't care about what we're doing to ourselves we should care about the path we're leading them down," Bender told the audience of about 400.

Bender said he began using spitting tobacco — he refuses to call it smokeless tobacco because he says that's misleading — when he was 12.

Why did he start? Pressure from peers, convincing tobacco advertisements and the way he associated with his favorite sport, baseball.

By 1988, when he was 25, he had developed a large sore on the side of his tongue that would not go away for months. He stopped using — but it returned a few months later. He was sent to a specialist for a biopsy.

"You want to talk about the worst week of your life? I was only 26 years old, and I was waiting to see if I had cancer," Bender said.

Surgeons successfully removed the cancerous cells from Bender's mouth and throat, taking a chunk of his tongue and the lymph nodes on the right side of his neck in the process. But removing the cancer also caused nerve damage that limited the use of his right arm, a tough blow to the former minor league baseball player.

His right arm, after all, was his throwing arm.

Radiation therapy later caused an infection in the right side of Bender's jaw. As a result, it deteriorated and doctors had to remove it.

Now, Bender visits schools and colleges across the country to dispel what he sees as the myths about chewing tobacco. He also addresses major and minor league baseball players each year at spring training.

"I do this for two reasons," he said. "The first and most important is I just want to let people know what happened to me. Hopefully, people will sit there and say, 'That guy made some mistakes. I don't want to make those mistakes.' If that happens, I'm happy.

"Second, it's kind of personal what happened to me, but being out here and talking about it helps me deal with it."

With so many laws in place that prohibit smoking, people are turning to chewing tobacco, Bender said.

"They look at it like it's some sort of safe alternative to smoking," he said. "They're out there jonesing for their nicotine, and they're using this to get their fix."

And the addiction, he said, lasts a lifetime.

"I don't care what tobacco companies are saying, they're flat out lying," Bender said. "This stuff is addictive, and I still consider myself addicted. I haven't used it in better than 18 years, but I still love the smell of it and I consider myself an addict . . . once you're an addict, whether you stop using or not, you're always an addict."

Bender said he knows not everyone who smokes will get lung cancer and not everyone who uses chewing tobacco will get mouth cancer, but the risks are too high to make the gamble worth it.

He encouraged anyone who knows someone using chewing tobacco to help them quit. And if they can't, he says, then at least help them to watch for the warning signs of cancer.

"The bottom line, you know, is regardless of how old a person is, the day they start using tobacco is the day they start putting their body at risk for cancer," he said.


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