Tom started chewing just as many of these men did. He was about 13 when he was helping out on his grandpa’s farm, and someone gave him a chew. He continued chewing through high school in his varies sports (mainly baseball). Tom and I meet his sophomore year in college. I continually told him I didn’t like his chewing, and he continually ignored me. Being in his dorm room was disgusting. I never put my pop can down while I was in there – you know why! Many cans were accidentally kicked over, so the carpet smelled horrible and was brown from all the stains. When he asked me to marry him, I said, “Yes, if you quit chewing.” You know how long that lasted. He would just sneak it. As many of the writer’s said, he would wait until I left. Or he would chew to and from work, at softball games, Boundary Waters trips, hunting and fishing trips. Anytime I wasn’t there, I’m sure a dip was. Finally, I caught him. We had arguments about it. I am a teacher, and one year I received a video to show my fifth graders about a teenage boy who died from chewing tobacco related cancer. I took it home and showed Tom. He was unfazed. He thought he was a big strong football player. It wasn’t going to happen to him. After our daughter was born, he said he would quit. After our next daughter was born, and our son, and our last daughter. After many debates, I told him I didn’t want it around me, the kids, the house. I didn’t want to see it, hear about it, or know about it. I didn’t want that STUFF to be an example for our kids. They all looked up to their dad, and I didn’t want them to think it was cool!
In October of 2003, Tom had a sore on the inside of his cheek that wasn’t going away. He thought he had bitten his cheek, and it was infected. The doctor put him on antibiotics for 10 days. After that didn’t work, he went to an ENT. This doctor looked at it and said, “I think it’s cancer.” One week later, we received the bad news – squamous cell carcinoma. Five days later, we saw the surgeon. He said it was Stage 1, it looked very small, and he thought surgery would be the end of it. We were so relieved that there wouldn’t be any radiation or chemo. One week later (Nov. 28, 2003) Tom had surgery. I looked at some of the pictures on the website, and you could easily add Tom’s picture to it. He was cut from the middle of his bottom lip, down his neck, over to the right, and up behind his right ear. He had a trachea because the tumor was in his jaw so he could only open his mouth about an inch, and they were afraid he might aspirate. When he came home 5 days later, our eight year old daughter cried because he looked so scary. This made Tom (my 235 pound football player) cry! (Tom DOESN’T cry!)
We thought we were done. However, the pathologist report on the lymph nodes was that one out of fourteen had come back with some cancer cells in it. The surgeon said it was Tom’s choice, but he would recommend radiation. He started radiation on Jan. 5, 2004. It was not a normal treatment of radiation. It was a newer type that would do less damage to surrounding tissue, but instead of being radiated for a couple of minutes, it would take 30 minutes. Monday though Friday for 6 1/2 weeks. He got very sick, couldn’t eat (he said food tasted like shards of glass), and dropped down to 175 pounds. After the treatments were over, he would feel lousy for a couple more weeks, then he would gradually start feeling better. This happened, until April. He started feeling bad again. He was very depressed and went on anti-depression medication.
May 1, 2004 was the beginning of the end. Our 15 year old daughter was going to prom, and we went to take pictures. Tom got out of the car and began throwing up. His vision was also being affected. What was going on! This began day after day of doctor’s appointments and tests. Finally, at the end of May, we got our answer – the cancer was back with a vengeance. Chemo would give him a year or two. But I thought a year or two would give us time to look around at all our options, and medical science was always coming up with something new. At this point, Tom had a food tube put in because he couldn’t get much down. Between the pre-op physical and surgery (3 days) he lost 30 pounds! The cancer was eating him alive. He was scheduled to go to the Mayo Clinic on June 7 (his 42nd birthday).
On June 3 he spiked a fever, and I took him to the hospital. They ambulanced him to Minneapolis. They found lesions in most of his internal organs. After 5 days of testing, they found that it was all squamous cell carcinoma. We brought our children to the hospital on June 10 to tell them that their dad was going to die. That has been one of the most painful times of my life. To see my children (ages 16, 12, 9, 7) touch their once robust, jolly father who lay lifeless in his hospital bed and know he was dying just killed me. Two days later, we were all around him as he took his last breath. Our oldest child threw herself on his legs and cried, “Don’t go, Dad!”
Stage 1 cancer, 1.3 centimeters in size – and he was dead in less than seven months from the day he was diagnosed. He never thought it would happen to him. Someone once asked me what the chances of getting cancer from chewing tobacco was, and I replied that it didn’t matter what the chances are if you are the one who gets it. You never know if it will be you.
As I continued to read some of the entries, the tears began to fall as I saw Tom’s name. Some of the writer’s said that Tom’s story helped them to continue on their journey of being tobacco free. This would have meant so much to Tom, and means so much to me. Tom spoke to our 16 year old’s health class right after he was done with radiation. He told them that he thought he was only hurting himself, but he realized that this addiction hurt anyone who has ever cared about him. He was a very selfless person, and it hurt him to know that he was putting all of us through hell. He wasn’t thinking about himself, and all the pain and suffering he was going through. That was the kind of man he was.
Our eight year old daughter comes to me often at night crying. She asks why companies make things that kill people, and why did Dad have to chew. I don’t have any answers for her. Tom felt so guilty about his choice to continue chewing. He couldn’t believe the power of his addiction. Two weeks after his surgery he said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I just had a craving for a chew!”
One year later, we are surviving, but not really loving life. Maybe someday we will get there, but for now I want to put my head on his barrel chest and have him wrap his arms around me and just hold me tight. I want to hear him tell the stories I heard him tell a hundred times, but still laughed until I cried every time I heard them. He was so full of life, until chewing tobacco took his life.
I am glad that so many people have been helped by this website. I only wish Tom had been aware of it. I want to thank you for letting me tell Tom’s story, for e-mails I’ve received, for entries on Tom’s caring bridge website, for financial support, and for your prayers. I wish you all success in staying tobacco free. God bless you.
NOTE: This article was originally sent to The Quit Smokeless Organization and is archived here to ensure that as many people are made aware of Tom Kern’s story as possible.