Rick Bender was your typical kid growing up in the 1970s. He loved baseball and wanted to fit in with his peers. He didn’t like cigarettes, so at age 12 took his first dip of chewing tobacco. He hated the taste like any first-time user but kept it up. Sure, it was a nasty habit. But professional baseball players were doing it, and the tobacco industry was portraying it as a safe alternative to smoking, luring young people to “take a pinch instead of a puff.”
If he had only known then what he knows now – spit tobacco is dangerous. It’s tobacco, and tobacco can kill. In fact, Bender was given only 18 months to live when he was first diagnosed with an aggressive form of oral cancer at age 26. Four surgeries and 20 years later, Bender is alive and well but missing half his jaw, a third of his tongue and some use of his right arm.
He is away from his wife and kids around 100 days a year to tell his story to young people across the country. His goal isn’t to punish the tobacco industry. He just wants young people to see what could happen to them if they start using tobacco like he did.
Bender’s physical features tell only part of the story. In fact, he accurately categorizes himself as just one example of what can happen to someone who uses tobacco, and in many ways he’s the lucky one. Yes, his face is disfigured, but he is alive and healthy. He points out that tobacco use also can cause other types of cancer, and it can lead to a life of heart disease and high blood pressure.
Then there’s the worst-case scenario – the one Bender describes by introducing the name Sean Marsee. Marsee was a high school track star who during his senior year was diagnosed with the same type of oral cancer that Bender suffered. Unlike Bender, Marsee didn’t live to tell his own story. He was dead 10 months later at age 19.
Unfortunately, Marsee’s outcome is more common for that type of cancer because it is so aggressive and typically caught too late. Bender, the survivor, is the exception.
“I’m not trying to tell kids what to do,” Bender said. “I just want them to make an educated choice.” He’s the perfect counter to the argument that cancer is something that old people get. “The big message I want to get across to them is regardless of how old you are, the day you start using tobacco of any kind, you put things in your body that cause cancer. The day you start. A lot of young people think, ‘oh, I’ll be 50 or 60 when it gets me.’ Well, I was 26.”
His matter-of-fact message hit Central Louisiana schools in October, when The Rapides Foundation invited him to share his story. During a two-week visit facilitated by the Central Louisiana Area Health Education Center, Bender spoke at 16 schools and made several public appearances across the region. In all, Bender’s words reached some 7,000 Central Louisiana residents. The hope is that people young and old take his message to heart.
Alyssa Briggs, 16, of Marksville High got the point that tobacco is tobacco, regardless of how it’s packaged. “It doesn’t matter if it’s smokeless or not, it’s still going to have the same harmful effects and you can get cancer either way. It’s not safer than smoking cigarettes. It’s the same thing.”
Marksville High junior Kai Burks, 16, said, “You may think that chewing tobacco is a little bit safer because you are not inhaling it and you’re spitting it right back out, but at the same time it’s eating away your gums and it’s really damaging you more than you think.”
Asked what she’d say to a friend or loved one who used spit tobacco, Caitlyn Ponthier, 12, of Marksville High said, “I would ask them to stop because they are too young and because it could kill them.”
Central Louisiana’s spit-tobacco rate is more than double that of the rest of the nation, according to the Foundation’s 2005 Community Health Assessment. In some parishes, such as Catahoula, nearly 20 percent of adults use spit tobacco.
“Too many of our residents are suffering devastating effects on their lives and their health because of common misconceptions about spit tobacco being a safe alternative to cigarettes,” said Joe Rosier, CEO/President of The Rapides Foundation. “We want everyone to be aware that it is not safe or even a safe alternative to other forms of tobacco.”
Bender said he would love to prevent young people ever from starting to use tobacco. But for those who are already addicted, he offers these words of advice: “If somebody for some reason can’t quit and they get a sore in their mouth and it doesn’t go away in 10 days, they need to get down to a professional -- a dentist or a doctor or an ear nose and throat guy. Get it looked at, before it’s too late.”