Rick Bender never knew the most dangerous thing he faced on a baseball field was a little round can of Copenhagen in his back pocket. "Smokeless tobacco can have a devastating effect on your everyday life," said Bender.
Bender, 41, a former minor league baseball player and mouth cancer survivor, spoke March 23 to students in Viola and Salem about the dangers of smokeless tobacco and how young people are targets of advertisers. He also spoke to the Salem Chamber of Commerce March 24.
Bender lectures at schools all over the country and has appeared on "Nightline," "Today" and Nickelodeon.
"It was the scariest thing in my life to find out I had cancer when I was 26 years old," Bender said.
Bender's best argument for his message stares out at his audience when he speaks. "I have a face nobody can forget," he said.
When he was 25 he discovered a little white bump on the side of his tongue. Doctors conducted a biopsy on the bump and discovered a cancerous tumor in his mouth. Doctors removed his jaw, part of his tongue, lymph glands and nerve cells in his neck, he said.
"I can't even lick my lips," he said
He said tobacco companies target teen-agers because the longer a person is addicted, the more money they will spend over their lifetime.
Tobacco companies spend $9 billion a year in advertisements, he said.
Bender said peer pressure and baseball share in the blame. He said when he was 12, friends tried to get him to smoke, but he instead turned to smokeless tobacco.
He said the problem accelerated in high school because he played baseball and everybody he knew who played the game was addicted to smokeless tobacco.
Mouth cancer can strike people of any age, Bender said.
He said he knows a boy in Indiana who started dipping Skoal with his father when he was 5 and by the time he turned 8 he had either a cancerous or a pre-cancerous tumor in his mouth.
Bender said knows about a teen-ager, Shawn Marcy, who started dipping Copenhagen when he was 15. He said Marcy was a track star with a bright future. When he was 18, Marcy found a little white bump in his mouth and it turned out to be cancerous, Bender said. He said while other teenagers in Marcy's class were going to prom and getting ready for college, Marcy was lying in a hospital bed dying. Marcy died eight months after the discovery of his cancer.
Education is the key to combating smokeless tobacco use, he said.
Bender said Arkansas does an excellent job of putting tobacco settlement money back into education. He said Arkansas ranks fourth among all the states that received settlement money and used it to educate teenagers about the dangers of tobacco.
Bender said he likes working with young people around the country and he thanks God that he is still alive. "It's amazing that I can even talk. I just hope that some of these young people are listening," he said.