Beating the odds
October 4, 2004
Ten years and 33 surgeries later, he’s beaten doctor’s odds.
Gruen Von Behrens, of Stewardson, Ill., is cancer-free, but his face is deformed, and his speech is slurred.
“I didn’t know tobacco could do this to me,” he said.
He told Eagle Valley Middle School seventh-graders Monday his addiction to chewing tobacco nearly killed him.
“They couldn’t guarantee I’d see my 18th birthday,” Von Behrens, now 27, said. “There’s a good chance you’ll die,’ doctors said.”
Doctors gave him less than a 25 percent chance of surviving his first surgery.
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Von Behrens, a former baseball player at an Illinois high school, saw his dream come to an abrupt end when he found a white spot on his tongue at age 16.
His uncle and grandfather used chew. He began at age 13, to see what it was like and to fit in. Older friends purchased it for him.
A few years later, after he turned 16, his mother noticed his drooling and slurred speech. Von Behrens, who already found the white spot on his tongue, told her his wisdom tooth needed pulling.
“I didn’t want her to see what was going on inside my mouth,” he said.
His mother made an appointment with a dentist. Once there, Von Behrens told the doctor not to put him under, and, in truth, that he had cancer in his mouth. The doctor told his mother, who was nearby.
“I’d never seen my mother cry like that,” he said. “It ripped her heart out.”
Von Behrens’ first surgery lasted 13 hours. Radiation was followed by removal of his teeth and gums. Muscle from his back and chest were used to reconstruct his face. Bone was taken from a leg.
“I hurt so bad,” he said. “Sometimes I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Von Behrens will continue having facial reconstruction. His total surgery costs range between $2.5 million and $3 million. He reminded students of the importance of being kind to people who look differently. He said people stare at him wherever he goes.
“Guys, I’m telling you about this because tobacco did this to me, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” he said. “I made this mistake for you. I want you to learn from my mistake … Tobacco is the only product on the market today that if you use it as directed, it will kill you.”
After the event, several students said they were shocked at Gruen Von Behrens’ disfigured face. Although they found his slurred speech difficult to understand at first, they could follow him by the end.
“I thought his presentation was very good,” said Justin Barlow, 12. “It discourages anyone from using tobacco or smoking.”
“I felt sorry for him,” said 12-year-old Stephanie Dodge. “That’s a lot of surgeries.”
Nhobelyn Kho, 12, said she would not want what happened to Von Behrens to happen to her.
“I learned that I shouldn’t use tobacco, and that I should tell my friends that use tobacco to stop, and anyone thinking of using tobacco not to start,” she said.
Contact reporter Maggie O’Neill at mo’email@example.com or 881-1219.
• More than 30,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharynx cancer. More than 8,000 people will die.
• The fatality rate is high because oral cancer is often discovered late.
• Oral cancer is dangerous because it can spread and cause other tumors.
• The most common areas for oral cancer to develop are on the tongue and bottom of the mouth.
• Chewing tobacco contains more than 3,000 chemicals, including lead, arsenic, cyanide and formaldehyde. About 28 chemicals are carcinogenic.
Tobaccofacts.org and oralcancerfoundation.org.