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Smokeless doesn’t mean it’s harmless

Nine days shy of his 27th birthday Rick Bender underwent surgery to remove mouth cancer. Doctors said he’d recover from the two-hour procedure in a matter of days. He would be back to work in no time.

“That was just the tip of the iceberg,” Bender said, now 41. Surgeons spent 12 hours removing the cancer that had traveled down into his shoulder. He spent six days in ICU. During that time his only memory was his father crying at his bedside.

His cancer was aggressive, a byproduct of 13 years of chewing tobacco. Bender wasn’t expected to see his 30th birthday. After four major operations and several minor ones, Bender is cancer free, but he’s lost half his jaw, a third of his tongue and partial use of his right arm.

He’s spent the past dozen years traveling the country talking to teens about the dangers of tobacco. Wednesday he gave his presentation to Ridgetop Junior High eighth and ninth graders. It was sponsored by the Kitsap County Dental Society and the Washington Oral Health Foundation.

Growing up, he felt peer pressure to smoke, but knew the dangers of lighting up. At the age of 12, he turned to smokeless tobacco, something that Dallas Cowboy great Walt Garrison endorsed on TV.

“Take a pinch instead of a puff,” the tag line for Skoal made it seem as if chewing tobacco had none of the ill effects of smoking it.

“It turned out to be the biggest lie told and I fell for it,” he said.

Bender, a minor league ball player for the Anaheim Angels, eventually had a can or more a day habit. At age 25 he noticed a bump on his tongue. It disappeared, but several months later returned as a dime-sized sore. It became an “extra inspiration to quit,” he said. The sore didn’t heal and was extremely painful he said. He went to the doctor and they took a biopsy.

“You want to talk about the worst week of my life,” Bender said. When the results came back doctors said his cancer had no remission and was particularly aggressive. The only option was to cut it out.

The Montana resident urged students if they have or know someone who has mouth sores or bumps that don’t heal within 10 days to go the the dentist or doctor and have it checked out.

He has been tobacco free for the past 13 years but the damage has already been done.

“There’s nothing I can do about it now. I have to live with it,” he said.

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