Rick Bender had been chewing tobacco for 13 years. He'd seen little white bumps on his tongue before. But this one didn't go away.
He ignored it, even when it rubbed raw against his teeth. The pain subsided a little, but it came back a few months later. This time, the bump had grown to the size of a dime on the side of his tongue. The family doctor didn't know what it was. Bender went to an expert.
In his office, the soft-spoken man asked one question.
"You're Rick Bender, right?"
The man grabbed his tongue and pulled it to the side. He shook his head and walked out the door.
Then he came back, this time with a small pink tray. In it was a white towel, a vial, a syringe and a scalpel.
He would send it to a lab for a biopsy. It would take a week, he told Bender. The longest of his life.
The news was grim: It was cancer. Worse, that white spot was just part of it.
Nine days before his 26th birthday, Bender went in for 12.5 hours of surgery. Doctors removed part of his tongue and cut through his jaw. They chased the cancer all the way down the side of his neck, cut out lymph glands.
By this part of Bender's story, several students in the Pasco High School gym had grown white-faced. Others rested their chins on their palms. Their eyebrows arched in pitiful looks.
The Partnership for a Tobacco Free Pasco and the Pasco County Health Department sponsored the talks Bender gave at Pasco High and Wiregrass Ranch High.
Pasco High students stared down from the gym's bleachers Friday morning at whom some have called "the man without a face."
The top half of Bender's face looks like any other man's. His short gray hair shows under his baseball cap. His eyebrows convey most of his emotion, and the tops of his cheeks are full and tan.
But the rest seems to melt away. Just below his right ear, the skin falls loose. It forms an indentation down his neck all the way into his collar.
This, he says, is what students will look like if they use spit tobacco.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.1 percent of high school students and 2.6 percent of middle school students were using spit tobacco in 2009.
About 40,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer annually, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Of those, about 8,000 die.
Bender held up a can of Copenhagen and listed its contents: 28 carcinogens, the same amount of nicotine as three to four packs of cigarettes, sugar, salt, dirt.
He told them what led him to start when he was 12: peer pressure and watching his favorite athletes use it.
He recalled Walt Garrison of the Dallas Cowboys on glossy magazine pages, urging him to "take a pinch not a puff."
On an overhead projector Friday on the gym's floor, Bender cued up a black-and-white photo of a once-handsome high school senior with stern features. Bender introduced him as a 165-pound all-state athlete, who chewed tobacco and one day found a small white spot, similar to Bender's.
When he flipped to the next slide, one girl gasped.
There was the same boy. This time with a tube up his nose, pale, 88 pounds and with a miserable, thousand-yard stare. Bender said that boy died a few weeks after that photo was taken. His tumor had suffocated him.
Bender turned to the question part of his presentation. Only one boy raised his hand.
"How can we help a friend or family member stop?" he asked.
"Do me a little favor," Bender said. "Maybe the next time you see them, pass on this information.
"The only small chance they're going to stand . . . is to catch it early."
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 869-6247.