Brian Hill was a self-professed health freak.
He was an outdoorsman who had never used tobacco. He was a fit 230 pounds with 8 percent body fat. But a lump in the side of his neck changed his life in 1997.
Hill is the founder and president of the Oral Cancer Foundation, a small national nonprofit organization based in Newport Beach, California. He is an oral cancer survivor who contracted the disease through human papillomavirus, or HPV, which happens more often than people think, Hill said.
He is now a fierce advocate for more awareness of the disease, which is also often caused by smoking or chewing tobacco — and those two forms of tobacco are about as common with the rodeo crowd as Coors and Budweiser. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 14 percent of boys ages 12 to 17 use smokeless tobacco nationwide, and the rates are higher in rural states.
The newest effort to achieve more awareness and early detection of oral cancer starts with Cody Kiser, the new rodeo representative for the foundation.
Kiser, 23, is a bareback bronco rider who competed in the Snake River Stampede this week on his rodeo circuit. He graduated in May with a civil engineering degree from the University of Nevada-Reno, not far from his hometown of Carson City.
“We’ve wanted to (have a rodeo representative) for about five years, we just never found the right person who was the right voice for the foundation,” Hill said.
That all changed in March, when an employee at the foundation brought up Kiser’s name as a potential candidate for the role. Kiser has never smoked or chewed, which made him an ideal choice.
“I attribute a lot of that to my father and grandfather and family growing up. Nobody chewed,” Kiser said. “It just never was for me, and I just never got into it.”
He added that his family — particularly his mother — would have had plenty to say about it if they found out he was using tobacco.
Kiser agreed to fill the role for the foundation, and the Stampede was his debut. Thursday was the first day he wore a shirt sporting the logo and slogan, “Be Smart, Don’t Start,” down the sleeve. A few of his rodeo buddies had already asked questions about it by Thursday night.
“I tell them we’re just here to give them information about the risks involved and what can happen,” Kiser said.
More than 43,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a type of oral cancer this year, Hill said. It will cause more than 8,000 deaths, killing close to one person every hour. Of those newly diagnosed, only 57 percent will still be alive within five years. Hill is one of the luckier half, even though his diagnosis came when he was already at Stage IV, 18 to 30 months in. And even though he survived, a portion of the right side of his neck needed to be removed.
“It’s a brutal disease to go through,” Hill said. “… We have a death rate that’s just brutal. And if you live, you may not have a tongue, you may not be able to swallow food, people may not be able to understand what you’re saying.”
Though tobacco use is highly popular among rodeo competitors and audiences, Hill said the sport has moved away from tobacco companies in recent years. In 2009, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association ended its national sponsorship contract with the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company. Hill said that has made the sport more appealing as a family event, and it gives the foundation a good place to start. But he believes there is more work to be done, and the foundation will partner with Kiser to get its message into more rodeo programs and public service announcements.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “We’re feeling our way through rodeo right now, and by the end of the year we’ll have a better idea of what this looks like.”
*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.