Tobacco, choices and the truth
“I’m not a quitter,” six-time cancer survivor and motivational speaker Ronnie Trentham told students in the Columbus Middle School gym on Oct. 6.
But that wasn’t the only reason the “small-town country boy” from Stillwell, Okla. was willing to go through a painful operation that involved removing the right side of his lower jaw and have it rebuilt using bone and tissue from his lower left leg.
One by one, he displayed slides of his wife, his three daughters and his granddaughter.
“That’s why I fought so hard,” he said. “Family is so important.”
Trentham started chewing tobacco when he was young, he said, and with 85 percent of cancer victims dying, he was lucky to be alive to pass on the message to young people.
“One, there is no safe form of tobacco,” Trentham said. “And two, you can make better choices than I did.”
Cancer from tobacco use is “100 percent preventable,” he said, as he showed frightening photos of diseased gums and teeth, a tumor on the side of a tongue and numerous cancerous taste buds.
Out of all that pain and horror came a surprise bit of humor – at home after his surgery, Trentham felt something odd in his mouth. His wife used a flashlight to look inside and started laughing – hairs were growing out of the leg tissue used to rebuild his jaw.
“She used tweezers to remove them one by one,” Trentham said. “Now, who else would do that for you?”
The American Cancer Society named Trentham its Hero of Hope in 2010 and its Global Hero of Hope in 2014. His partner in the Cherokee Nation Tobacco Tour that came to Columbus is Greg Bilby, a Cherokee Indian with deep roots in the small Indian community of Lost City, Okla.
Bilby has been involved with the Tobacco Tour since it kicked off in November 2008, reaching more than 21,000 children. But instead of being a cancer survivor, Bilby is a story-teller.
Selecting several students and faculty members from the audience, Bilby led the re-enactment of a Cherokee story he learned from renowned Cherokee National Treasure Storyteller Robert Lewis – “The Long Ears of Knowledge.”
Seventh-grader JJ Unger played the role of Rabbit, who is given several difficult tasks by The Creator of Everything, played by Columbus School Superintendent Jeff Bermes. In the final task, Rabbit takes on Alligator, played by Amber Gabel, a student counselor intern at the middle school. Rabbit succeeds in overcoming Alligator and dragging her up the mountain to The Creator.
Unger managed to stay serious for most of his lines, but it didn’t help when children and adults alike in the audience cracked up at the words handed to the actors one at a time by Bilby.
In the end, Rabbit learned about knowledge – and listening with his big floppy ears.
That was the message Bilby wanted to impart on his audience.
“Now you have the knowledge and power to make better choices,” he said.
PROVEN TOBACCO DANGERS
The dangers of smoking or chewing tobacco have been well established by medical studies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.
• Smoking causes 480,000 deaths each year in the U.S. – about one in five deaths.
• Cigarette smoking causes more deaths than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle crashes and firearms-related incidents combined.
• More than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than died in all the wars fought by the U.S. in history.
• Smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to develop heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. Even people who smoke fewer than five cigarettes a day can show early signs of cardiovascular disease.
• Cigarette smoking causes most lung cancer cases, but smoking can cause cancer nearly anywhere in the body, including the bladder, blood, colon, esophagus, kidney, liver, pancreas, stomach and trachea.
• If nobody in the U.S. smoked, one in three cancer deaths wouldn’t happen.
• Smoking makes it harder for women to become pregnant, and it can affect a baby’s health before and after birth.
The American Cancer Society warns that smokeless tobacco is also a major health risk, even if it’s less lethal than smoking.
• People who dip or chew tobacco get about the same amount of nicotine as smokers, along with at least 30 other chemicals known to cause cancer.
• Dipping or chewing can lead to nicotine addiction, which can lead to smoking.
• Smokeless tobacco use can cause cancer in the mouth, tongue, cheek, gum, esophagus and pancreas.
• Dipping or chewing has been linked to heart disease and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
• For pregnant women, smokeless tobacco use increases the risk of early delivery or stillbirth.
• There is no medical proof that using smokeless tobacco can help people stop smoking.
The American Lung Association notes that while a lot is still not known about e-cigarettes, initial studies have found causes for concern.
• The e-liquid used in e-cigarettes is made by mixing nicotine extracted from tobacco in a chemical base – often propylene glycol, the same chemical used in antifreeze. A 2014 study found that some e-cigarettes emit formaldehyde, a carcinogen.
• Flavoring chemicals added to e-cigarettes may be considered safe in foods, but they may not be safe when inhaled in an e-cigarette. Diacetyl, for example, a buttery-flavored chemical often added to popcorn, caramel or dairy products, has been found in some e-cigarettes and can cause a serious and irreversible disease commonly called “popcorn lung.”
• On May 5, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would begin regulating e-cigarettes. Manufacturers were required to register by Aug. 8 and submit an application to remain in the marketplace within two years. In the meantime, nearly 500 brands would remain on the market.
• The FDA has not approved any e-cigarette as a safe or effective method for people to quit smoking cigarettes. A 2013 study found that three-quarters of people who smoked e-cigarettes also smoked conventional cigarettes.