BALLSTON SPA: Facing the facts about tobacco

He has lost one-third of his tongue, one-half of his jaw, multiple lymph nodes and much of the connective tissue on the right side of his neck, but Rick Bender still spends his years traveling, talking and teaching.

His speech is somewhat slurred, and due to nerve damage in his right arm, his movements are shortened, but Bender drives his point home just by standing before crowds of teenagers, because his appearance alone tells a story.

Go ahead, take my picture, said Bender, 40, addressing a group of 10th-grade health class students at the Ballston Spa Central School District.

With his disfigured face, Bender doesn't mind being the poster child for the chilling dangers of tobacco. In fact, he wants all teenagers to keep in mind the damage done by the oral cancer he contracted after chewing tobacco for 10 years, starting at age 12.

"I started using 'spit tobacco' because of peer pressure because I didn't want to smoke cigarettes, and because I wanted to be like the pro baseball players," said Bender. "My parents taught me that smoking gave you lung cancer, and I thought tobacco could only harm you if you smoked it. All the ads said, 'Take a pinch instead of a puff.'"

By February 1988, as Bender's habit led him to go through a tin of tobacco a day, he discovered a small white spot on the side of his tongue. After ignoring it for months, he had the site biopsied, and was diagnosed with oral cancer. He was 25 years old.

"I had a very aggressive, fast-growing cancer, and I was told there was no remission; it wouldn't stop until it was cut out," said Bender, who was wearing a "no snuff" T-shirt and baseball cap.

Advised his surgery would take two hours, Bender woke up more than 12 hours later with a huge chunk of his face missing. As it turned out, the dime-sized bump was just the tip of the iceberg: the cancer had burrowed down into his lymph glands.

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