GREENFIELD — Gruen Von Behrens knows his audiences have trouble understanding him.
“I know you can’t understand me sometimes,” Von Behrens warned a crowd of about 100 students at St. Michael School Tuesday. “I know not everything I say will come out just the way I want.”
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t get his message – loud and clear.
If anything, the disfigurement that affects his speech only helps illustrate Von Behrens’ point. The 35-year-old is missing most of lower jaw, part of his tongue and all of his teeth – lost to oral cancer caused by chewing tobacco use.
Von Behrens was introduced to smokeless tobacco at 13 years old. Though he had heard about the dangers associated with tobacco products, Von Behrens said he – like most teenagers – thought it wouldn’t happen to him.
“I thought cancer was for old people,” he said.
It wasn’t. Von Behrens was diagnosed with metastasized oral cancer and was given a 20 percent chance of survival at the age of 17.
Thirty-three surgeries later, Von Behrens has trouble recognizing the man he is or the life he leads.
“I went from being the person people looked up to, to be the person people talked about,” the 35-year-old said.
In high school, Von Behrens was a star baseball player, who would have had his choice of colleges to play for. But then he noticed a small spot on his tongue that slowly started to grow, making him slur his speech and drool. He hid it from family and friends, for fear of disappointing his mother and getting kicked off the baseball team.
Eventually, though, baseball became the least of his concerns. Just six days after seeing a doctor, Von Behrens would undergo his first 13-hour surgery. It would be followed up with extensive radiation treatments that destroyed the skin on his face and the tissue inside his mouth. He has had a portion of bone from his legs and back removed to reconstruct his face, as well as skin grafted from other parts of his body to cover wounds on his back and face.
The story is one Von Behrens has told often. For the past 15 years he has made a career of speaking to people about the dangers of tobacco use. He has spoken to more than 3 million students in 46 states and all seven Canadian provinces.
His stint of five speeches in Greenfield – three Tuesday and one each Thursday and Friday – is his second in Greenfield.
The Hancock County Tobacco Free Coalition first brought Von Behrens to town in 2008 after hearing him speak elsewhere.
“I was just absolutely motivated to tears to hear his story,” said Brandee Bastin, Tobacco Free Coalition director. “Bringing him to our community has had such a profound impact.”
Von Behrens’ message is a unique one in the world of tobacco cessation and prevention, Bastin said. While a lot of attention has focused on the dangers of smoking, smokeless tobacco has often been seen as a safer alternative, which is not the case, she said.
“The belief that smokeless tobacco is a healthier option is absolutely not accurate,” Bastin said. “There is no safe use of tobacco.”
It’s a message that surprised some of the St. Michael students Tuesday.
“I didn’t think that could happen from chewing tobacco,” said Luke Tuttle, an eighth-grader at St. Michael. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”
Principal Teresa Slipher said that while tobacco use has not been a problem among her students, she’s hoping the program will reach kids before they have to make decisions about tobacco use. Slipher also encouraged students to take the information they learned from Von Behrens home to friends and family who might already be using.
Eighth-grader William Ferree said he would do just that.
“I will certainly tell people about it,” Ferree said.
For Von Behrens, now married with two children, preventing other kids from making the same poor choice he did is the best thing that can come from the pain and suffering he has endured for the last 18 years.
“Take a good, hard look at my face. Listen to my voice,” he said. “Stick it in your head, because the choices you make can affect the rest of your life.”