Personal tragedy turned into warning against teen tobacco use
January 23, 2004
by Maggie O'Neill, Staff Writer
Beware: Gruen Von Behrens, an oral cancer patient, speaks to students at Carson Valley Middle School on Wednesday morning about his fight. The cause? Chew.
Students at Carson Valley Middle School listened -- and listened well -- as oral cancer survivor Gruen Von Behrens relayed a message on Wednesday.
"I didn't think it'd happen to me," he said.
Von Behrens, once a popular 17-year-old baseball player at an Illinois high school, stood as a 26-year-old advocate before middle school students, telling how tobacco took his good looks away.
"I know I'm a little hard to understand, so you're going to have to bear with me and listen," he said to the packed auditorium.
"This isn't a mask I can take off and throw in the closet. I'm like this 365 days a year."
"This" began for Von Behrens when he was 17 and noticed a white spot on his tongue that began to grow and cause it to split.
He told his mother the drooling she noticed was from a painful wisdom tooth.
"I didn't want my mom to see what was going on in my mouth," he said.
At the same time, he holed up in the bathroom, asking God why this was happening to him.
"This" began with chewing tobacco when he was 13, a decision he regrets 33 surgeries later.
"I liked the way it tasted," he said at the assembly. "It made me feel good."
Concerned about his wisdom tooth, Von Behrens' mother took him to a dentist. Von Behrens told the dentist he wasn't there due to a tooth. He had cancer. The dentist agreed.
"I've never seen my mom cry like that," Von Behrens said. "It ripped her heart out."
Doctors gave Von Behrens a 25 percent survival chance for his first surgery. The operation took 13 hours as friends and family gathered anxiously in a waiting room.
"At 17, you're not supposed to think about life and death issues," he said.
He did survive, but doctors severed his tongue as part of the operation. The 5-foot-10 baseball player recuperated a month and a half later to discover another face in the mirror.
"I said, 'Man this sucks. I'm not that good-looking guy anymore.'"
Next came painful radiation and when he reached 19, a time he said should be "the best years of life," 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.
In February 2002, doctors cut bone from his left leg to again attempt to shape a jaw for Von Behrens. The surgery was a success, but left Von Behrens with a flattened calf and on crutches.
None of "this" has stopped the courageous man, scheduled to undergo his 34th surgery March 10. None of it has stopped Von Behrens from making a passionate plea that people should not be judged on appearance.
"Be your own person and be yourself," he said at the assembly. "Friends don't care what you look like. Talk to the person sitting next to you. They could (turn out to be) your best friend."
He spoke of the small things and of family and of friends who make life meaningful.
"Be thankful for what you have guys and enjoy life. Be nice to your parents and nice to your friends. Tell them you love them."
He encouraged students to speak out and tell others who are smoking or using chew to stop, to tell them it smells, to say they won't give them a kiss with a stinky mouth.
"Take what I have told you to heart guys," he said. "If you see someone using (tobacco), say 'You're going to look like (Von Behrens).'"
Toward the end of his talk, he said he is thankful every day for one thing. He walked across the gymnasium floor.
"I can still walk," he said.
Maggie O'Neill can be reached at email@example.com
or (775) 782-5121, ext. 214.