As a teenager, Gruen VonBehrens was like any other teenage boy. The Illinois native was an all-star baseball player and popular with his classmates.
“People looked up to me,” VonBehrens said.
His priorities as a teenager were simple: baseball, food and women. “And in that order,” he joked.
By the time VonBehrens turned 17, his priorities had changed.
For VonBehrens, who grew up in a small town, chewing tobacco was part of a way of life. So, like many teens in his town, he started chewing at the age of 13 and continued until he was in high school.
After four years of chewing tobacco and at the age of 17, he was diagnosed with oral cancer. “My cancer had split my tongue in half,” he said. “They removed half my tongue during major surgery.”
VonBehrens also lost the lower part of his jaw. Surgeons had to pull bones and skin from other parts of the body to fix his face.
By the time the cancer was gone, VonBehrens had undergone 34 surgeries, spending millions of dollars. As if the teen years aren’t hard enough, VonBehrens ended his with his face torn apart, the only option to save his life from cancer.
“I went from being the person people looked up to, to the person people looked at,” he said.
Now, in his mid-30s, VonBehrens is a spokesman for Oral Health of America and the National Spit Tobacco Education Program. He tours the country showing and telling teens, and adults, too, about the dangers of tobacco use.
“I want people to be able to see me, hear my story, understand what I’ve been through, and then make the choice on whether they want to use tobacco or not,” he said.
VonBehrens recently visited Richmond County as a guest of FirstHealth Community Health Services. His visit was funded by a Youth Tobacco Use Prevention and Cessation grant, and he visited 10 schools in the Sandhills during his stay.
More than 2,000 students in the region heard his story. In Richmond County, students from the Richmond County Ninth Grade Academy sat with respect while listening to his compelling testimony.
“We wanted to bring Gruen in to share a real life story of how tobacco use can affect youth at a young age,” said Melissa Kuhn, FirstHealth’s youth tobacco grant coordinator. “Most youth assume the negative affects of tobacco use won’t happen until you are ‘old.’ Gruen’s story proves this is not the case.”
VonBehrens’ story tugged at the hearts of students and teachers alike as he talked openly about his choices, the consequences that followed and his new found appreciation for life, and showing — not just telling about — the dangers and effects of all forms of tobacco use.
“We all felt it was very important to have our students see first hand the results of tobacco use,” said Hal Shuler, assistant principal at Richmond County Ninth Grade Academy.
“I know our students benefited greatly from what they heard,” said Principal Dennis Quick.
“My hope is that all of the students who heard Gruen speak will share his story with others,” Kuhn said. “I would love to see our local teens impacting others in our community by sharing what they have learned and choosing to live tobacco-free, healthy lives while influencing each other in positive ways.”
According to VonBehrens, 25,000 people younger than 21 are currently being treated for a tobacco-related issue. Since his visit to the Sandhills, there have been reports from educators in several area schools that teens in their schools have quit tobacco.
A high school baseball standout, VonBehrens was featured as one of ESPN’s top college recruit picks before his cancer diagnosis. He lives in Central Illinois and has been married for 10 years to a woman he says married him, “… in spite of the way I look.” They have two young daughters.