Though it’s hard to understand Gruen Von Behrens’ speech, his message could not be clearer. The cancer survivor, who lost much of his neck, chin and tongue to the disease, is on a Northern Ontario high school tour to tell the story of how his chewing tobacco addiction impacted his life.
Von Behrens, who started chewing tobacco (also known as dipping) at the age of 13 and was diagnosed with cancer at 17, spoke to hundreds of students in the cafeteria at Thunder Bay’s Superior Collegiate and Vocational Institute on Wednesday morning. He said that many young people start smoking or chewing tobacco to look cool.
Addressing the crowd, he asked, “How cool will you look?
“I want everyone in here to take a good long look at my face,” he added, pointing to his disfigured features.
“I was very naive about what tobacco could do to me.”
The Thunder Bay District Health Unit sponsored Von Behrens’ speaking engagements in partnership with the Northwest Tobacco Control Area Network and Regional Cancer Care. Steve Tomé, youth engagement facilitator with the health unit, said that the use of chewing tobacco is 10 per cent higher in Northern Ontario than the rest of the province, so the unit wanted to send a message to students that dipping is no safer than smoking cigarettes.
“(Von Behrens) has got a great story that high school students can relate to,” Tomé said.
Von Behrens, now 34, has undergone 30 surgeries with at least one more to go. Cancer-free for 17 years now, he has been speaking to young Canadians and Americans for 11 years about his experience. The speaker, who is from Illinois, said that it’s obvious to him that his presentations influence people. After his talks, he said, students often come up to him and say that they’ll never use tobacco again.
When he spoke, he invited students to virtually befriend him on his personal Facebook page.
After presentations Tuesday at Nipigon Red Rock District High School and Thunder Bay’s St. Patrick High School , he said about 100 students added him as a friend on the social networking site, a sign that his story interests his audience.
Von Behrens also spoke at Churchill high school on Wednesday, and is to address students in Fort Frances, Kenora and Dryden in coming days.
Superior high school student Mathew Lesnick, who is involved with some school activities that the health unit is involved in, was asked by Tomé to introduce Von Behrens. Lesnick said that it looked like several students were affected by Von Behrens’ message, given the small crowd of students eager to speak to him after his speech.
Lesnick said that he had used tobacco products for about a year before quitting. He said he stopped because of the timing of a school trip and a family history of cancer. After Von Behrens’ presentation, Lesnick said if he was still using tobacco today, “that probably really would have made me quit.”