Gruen Von Behrens speaks about the dangers of tobacco use at Emery High School.
Gruen Von Behrens tells the Emery High students about the pain involved with skin grafts.
Gruen Von Behrens reaches out to the Emery High students and implores them not to use tobacco.
Many of Emery County's students may not try tobacco, in any form, including chew and cigarettes, due to one man. That man is Gruen Von Behrens, who at the age of 13 began to use "spit tobacco" and was diagnosed with cancer in his mouth at the age of 17.
When he was 13, his friends were experimenting with spit tobacco and offered him some. Von Behrens said it became a game with his buddies, like who could chew the biggest chunk, and who could chew the longest without throwing up. "We were real idiots," said Von Behrens. Four years later, Von Behrens was lying to his mom about his symptoms.
Von Behrens told of his first inclination of anything being wrong with him and starting to realize he might be sick. He said he noticed a small sore on his tongue, about the size of a pencil lead. It was like a cold sore and would not heal.
As a young man, his father was not in the family and Von Behrens was afraid to tell his mother. When she noticed he was having a hard time eating, and was drooling and slurring his speech, he told her it was his wisdom teeth coming in.
One day, his mother asked him to go to the mall with her. Von Behrens said when she passed the mall he knew something was up. Two blocks later they pulled into his doctor's office and she told him it was to have his wisdom teeth out. That was when he knew he couldn't keep his secret much longer.
Just as the doctor was to give him a shot to knock him out for the wisdom tooth surgery, Von Behrens shouted at the doctor to stop because he didn't have any wisdom teeth and he had cancer. This comment stopped the doctor and his mother in their tracks.
His mother was a nurse and knew the implications of what he was saying. The doctor proceeded to examine Von Behrens' mouth and confirmed his worst fears. One week later, the 17 year old was being wheeled into an operating room for the first of many surgeries that would change his life forever.
This first surgery would remove half of his tongue and much of the tissue in his lower face to try to remove all the cancer. Following the surgery, hundreds of radiation treatments would follow. Now, 14 years and 34 surgeries later, Von Behrens travels the United States and Canada speaking to students about the dangers of tobacco use.
He told the students at Emery High and Canyon View Junior High School that he would give anything if someone had come to his junior high school, who looked like he does now, to tell him of the dangers of spit tobacco. He also said he has since learned that anyone who smokes cigarettes can get the same type of cancer and look like him.
Von Behrens told the students of his goal to be a major league baseball player. He said he could have gone to any college around and had a full ride scholarship to play ball. That all vanished with his tobacco use.
After his first surgery, which lasted 13 and a half hours, Von Behrens was in the hospital for about six weeks. He was fed through a tube that ran into his nose and into his stomach. He missed the first semester of his senior year in high school, but was able to return to high school to finish his senior year.
Two years later, due to many radiation treatments, all his teeth began to disintegrate. He had to have them pulled and dentures built. "Today's society is a nasty place to grow up in, isn't it?" Von Behrens asked the students. He went on to explain how hard it was to go out in the world looking like he does.
In the years following the initial surgery, Von Behrens has had to have his entire mandible removed, and bone removed from his leg to rebuild a sort of jawbone. Then more tissue removed from his other leg to build up the tissue in his face along with skin grafts in his face and legs. He said no one can imagine the pain involved with skin grafts.
Von Behrens told the students he is still facing many more surgeries on his face because the doctors do not want him to have to face the world looking like he does. "My doctors do not want me to have to face the ridicule and public comments that come from many people," said Von Behrens. "Living this way is not fun. Everywhere I go people point and whisper."
He encouraged the students to learn to look at a person for what they are inside and not how they look on the outside. "You can't judge a book by its cover," he said. "You need to know a person by their heart. I've been on both sides of this situation and I am very lucky to have had friends who like me for what I am, not how I look."
"Be who you are. Be nice to one another. I challenge you to talk to someone today who you don't know," Von Behrens said. "If you don't remember anything else I said today, remember this. No matter how bad you have it, there is always someone, somewhere who has it worse. Be nice to your folks. They only seem tough on you because they love you."
Von Behrens told the students one more thing. Nicotine is more addictive than heroine and cocaine combined.
"This is the face of tobacco. You don't see this face in the advertisements. I made the mistake of using spit tobacco, so now you don't have to make it," said Von Behrens.