Bee staff writer
(Published: Tuesday, February 2, 1999)
As a 12-year-old Little Leaguer, Rick Bender tried his first plug of
chewing tobacco, emulating his major-league heroes.
At age 26, he was diagnosed with oral cancer. He underwent four surgeries
over the next two years and lost one-third of his tongue, half of his
jaw and partial use of his right arm. Since then, Bender has dedicated
his life to educating people about the dangers of what he calls "spit
On Thursday, Bender, now 36, will bring his cautionary tale to Modesto
"His appearance makes a big impact on people," said Hilda Sielicki,
MJC health coordinator. "The cancer that can eat up the skin is awful."
Bender, who now lives in Montana, has worked with the surgeon general,
Major League Baseball and appeared on the "Today" show and other
national news shows.
MJC, the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency and Doctors Medical
Center Foundation are sponsoring Bender's appearance, which will include
a talk, slide show and question-and-answer session. Young people and families
are especially encouraged to attend.
Organizers said they hope to make people aware of the deadly consequences
of smokeless tobacco. Donna Phillips, with the Health Services Agency's
tobacco education program, said people mistakenly think chewing tobacco
is healthier than cigarette smoking.
"Yes, your lungs aren't getting hurt," Phillips said. "But
the rest of you is. People don't see the problem."
Joni Valponi, tobacco-free community project coordinator with the Doctors
Medical Center Foundation, said the Northern San Joaquin Valley has seen
increases in chewing tobacco use over the past few years.
"There's an image of 'Look at me, I'm no wimp. I can handle chewing
tobacco,' " Valponi said. "But Bender wants his message to be
you don't have to use it even though people you like or respect are. He
has a real human side to his story."
Bender's Thursday night talk, titled "They
Call Me the Man Without a Face," will begin at 7 o'clock in the recital
hall on MJC's East Campus. Admission is free.
Reprinted by permission of Modesto Bee