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Cancer survivor warns students about tobacco

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 KICKING HORSE — Rick Bender is sometimes referred to as the “man without a face.” With only one third of his tongue remaining and only one half of his jaw, Bender is a living testimony to the life-altering affects of tobacco.

On Friday at the Through with Chew seminar in the gymnasium at Kicking Horse Job Corps, Bender spoke for about 45 minutes on the dangers of what he calls ‘spit tobacco’. 

Bender, who started chewing tobacco when he was 12, considered smokeless tobacco a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes. 

But when he was 25 years old, he developed a sore on the side of tongue. In March of 1989 he was diagnosed with oral cancer and in April of the same year, he underwent the first of six surgeries that would leave him permanently disfigured.

Even after such a traumatic history, Bender still considers himself an addict. After 20 years of a tobacco-less life, the former baseball player still fights cravings for tobacco.

Bender travels the country and speaks to more than 150,000 young people every year, warning them of the dangers of all tobacco products. He encourages young people to quit using tobacco products today. 

With every day that an individual continues to use tobacco, the risk of getting cancer increases, Bender said.

“I want you to learn from what happened to me,” Bender said, noting that cigarettes can cause the same cancer that he got from using smokeless tobacco. 

And he admits that he knows the secret of quitting. 

“You got to want to do it,” Bender said.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, smokeless tobacco contains 28 cancer causing agents.

Despite the numerous carcinogens in tobacco products, Bender said that he is aware that not everyone who uses tobacco products will develop cancer.

But the danger isn’t any less great.

“Regardless of how old you are, when you start you put your body at risk for cancer,” Bender said.

School officials at Kicking Horse estimate that 85 percent of the student population are tobacco users. 

And according CDC, the use of smokeless tobacco is the highest among young white males, American Indians, people living in southern and north central states and people employed in blue-collar occupations. 

Kicking Horse Training Employee Assistance Program Counselor Wendy Askan believes that statistics of tobacco users at Kicking Horse are high due to peer pressure. 

She said that every year at Kicking Horse about 10 to 15 students approach her wanting to quit using tobacco. Kicking Horse provides quitting kits for students interested, offers a cessation class, and counsels students on working through cravings. 

Through with Chew was sponsored by the Tribal Health Tobacco Prevention Program and funded by the Montana Tobacco Use Prevention Program.

After the presentation, many students fled the building, anxious to get back to their studies and dormitories, but a few stayed to mingle with the cancer survivor. Chatting about the affects of tobacco and marijuana have on brain cells and sharing personal experiences, the students seemed to flock around the dynamic “man without a face.”

When Bender left the building, there wasn’t a soul smoking on the smoking pavilion.  

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