Cancer and Quitter Stories

Jenny and Tom Kern’s Story

KillTheCan LogoTom 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.

Jenny Kern

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.

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  1. Day 305
    This is such a sad story, I know it’s been a long time, but I wanted to offer my sincere condolences.
    I’ve been posting comments in this site for almost a year now mostly related to my quit to encourage others. In one of my most recent posts i mention the destruction and pain that is inflicted to our loved ones. As an addict i did not see that, but rather dismissed it as “just get over it, it’s not like I am doing drugs or something”. Very selfish, I know, but that is how powerful this thing is. In Tom’s case he was going through fatal stages in his life and the crave to chew still popped into his head. Also in yet one my older posts I actually was very angry at the companies and people that profit over selling this product so i wrote a long and troubled post for anyone that cared to read. I suppose we do not have to buy and use the product, but usually when we begin this potentially fatal habit, it happens innocently, by taking just one pinch from someone we look up to or just by curiosity.
    One of my friends posts in here his name is JEFFJ and he had to go through chemotherapy and surgery as you describe. He survived and continues to post. I am sorry that your loved one did not make it, but his story has helped and will continue to help others



  2. I am 30 and have been ninja dipping for 10 years. I am recently married and trying to start a family. I am on day 30 of quitting this awful addiction. I want to be there for my wife and future kids for as long as I can be.

    Thank you to Jenny and the rest of the family for sharing your story. Tom’s story will continue to inspire many people. Prayers to your family.

  3. 34 years with tobacco and this article describes me exactly. I love my family. My wife is my best friend and we have been married 28 years. I can’t believe I have done this so long. Day 1 today and this story helped me right when I needed it today. I’ll be reading it everyday for awhile. I’m so sorry for the Kern’s loss but I promise to use this story to keep my quit. Thank you so much for sharing this story as it continues to be an inspiration all these years later to knuckleheads like me.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I’m on day 45 quit! I’m 42 years old so this hit home. You and yours are in my prayers

  5. This hit home after 42 years of dipping these stories and the people here have helped me get 11 days with out the dip so grateful to be here. this family will be in my prayers.

  6. Can’t tell you how deeply this story touched me. I am on day 3 and am grateful to have found this story as it really changed my way of thinking about this addiction. It is hard to think about hurting others when you are in the thralls of guilt and lacking will to gain control. This story is a powerful one that i will re-read daily to remind me of why i am quitting.

    Thank you Jenny and prayers to you and your family,

  7. Today is day 2; however, after reading this, it is making my day easier.

    I spit out a dip yesterday around 2pm…I’ve been dipping for about 23 years. God, I hope I don’t pick a can back up; I pray I can remember your story (and my family) every time I think about tuckin’ one in my lip.

    Thank you for sharing, and sorry for your family’s loss.

  8. My name is Alexa Kern. Tom was my dad and even tho it’s been 13 years since he has passed I still google him every now and then, like maybe I could trick myself into finding some new information about him. It’s always the same and I always find this page. I re-read my mom’s story and I read all the comments. It’s weird but everytime I read the story and re-live the series of events, and after crying a bunch, I feel better. I feel better knowing that him story could positively impact people. I feel better knowing that other people can relate. And I feel better knowing that there is a community out there to help people like my dad. So thank you. From all the daughters out there who love there dad’s and hate to watch them struggle with their addiction. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Alexa. I can’t tell you how many people your dad’s story has touched and helped. From the bottom of my heart a sincere thank you. If there’s ever anything that we can do for you or your family please don’t hesitate to ask. Chewie

    2. Thank you for sharing…your dad’s story has truly touched me…I think it’s just awesome that you took the time to speak to everyone on this site…I know that this story has inspired me and countless others on this site…I just wanted to say thank you

    3. Alexa, let me just say that I quit chewing 15 days ago. I have 3 kids – a daughter in her senior year of high school, an 11 yr old son and a 9 yr old son. I coach both of my boys in travel baseball and football. I stumbled upon your dad’s story earlier this morning and have to admit that I balled my eyes out when seeing “Through the eyes of Tom’s daughters: Kenzi and Tori.” on the Kill the Can website. It is truly inspiring and makes me a thousand times more determined to stay quit than I was just yesterday. It sounds like your dad was truly an amazing guy!

    4. Alexa, thank you for posting. Your dad’s story just ripped my heart out, and now all I can think about is how I owe it to my wife and precious kids to quit before it’s too late. I will be quitting tomorrow morning, and your dad’s story will be at the forefront of my mind for what I suspect will be a very long time. Take care, kiddo.

      Kirk S.

    5. I will not do that to my children. I was about to go buy a can and you saved me. 2/11/18 and going…..going thanks to you.

    6. After 20+ years of dipping I quit for the 2nd time 7 months ago. I’m 41 with 3 children and they are the reason I quit. As summer and baseball season has rolled around the urges to go back to the can have been almost unbearable. I made it through the winter reasonably without urges but the past few weeks have been bad. This story certainly helps reinforce why I quit and the need to stay strong during these recent urges. Thank you for sharing your story, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be.

    7. Thank you for sharing Alexa. May your family know that by you sharing you may save other family’s from the same saga. God Bless!!

  9. I quit in October after 38 years and this testimonial Jenny gave has stopped me from caving in on more than one occasion,sorry for your loss and thank you for sharing.

  10. That is now why we have alternative and fake chew. This will help all of us quit tobacco for good. The brands are: Oregon Mint Snuff, Smokey Mountain, and Bacc Off. Google these and tell me what you think. I understand that I smoked from 2008 until early 2017. I knew it was not good at all. So I quit for good and got into mint snuff fake dip. Now I do have Bacc Off. I have did Smokey Mountain Snuff as well.

  11. I’m wearing a wristwatch that was owned by my paternal grandfather, who committed suicide by tobacco back in 1994. Every time I glance at my wrist, I get a reminder to stay the hell away from nicotine in ALL its forms. Never Again For Any Reason!

  12. I work in a convenience store. Have been working the same store for 22 years. About 20 years ago one of my young customers came in. He was 20 years old and a regular. I had sold him many cans of dip. He said Same as Tom…I have a sore on my cheek and inside my mouth. I am going to the doctor. He came back afew days later and looked awful. He said I have cancer from the dip. I have to quit.His birthday to become 21 was was 6 months away. He didn’t make it. He died an awful death. He had been a dipper for 3 years. Don’t say if can’t happen to you. I hear Gotta die some how ….every day I hear that. Well cancer is painful and awful…..My brother was a heavy smoker… had a sore throat ,found caner, had surgery. 2 weeks later it had traveled to his brain and he died gasping for breath…..Is that the somehow you want????

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. I am on day 50 and have been really struggling the past few days. The last time I tried to quit, I didn’t tell anyone when I started back again, just acted normal. The past few days I have reached out to people hoping someone would grab me by the throat and slap some sense in me. Your moving story about Tom may have done that. I was planning on stopping by Sheetz after work and getting a can and was already preparing myself for how my wife would react. I have 4 kinds, (2 girls and 2 boys) 7, 2, and twin boys 7 months and I don’t cry much, but as I type this I admit it, I am crying. There is no way I can go back and start again, I have come this far. I am 38 and dipped for 20 years. Thank you for sharing your story.

  14. I am Tom. Or rather, I was until very recently. Met my wife in college…she hated my dipping…nasty dorm room, cans, spitters, stains everywhere…..married her right after graduation….she didn’t make me promise to quit but she hold told me/threatened to leave several times throughout dating and continued to into marriage. We celebrated 10 years last August and while the fights are fewer and farther between (either because I’m getting better at hiding or she’s losing the strength to fight) they still happen. On 4/25/2017 at 10 PM I took a large dip OUT of my mouth, and threw it and dumped 2 and a half cans out in the woods in my backyard. I’ve purchased herbal chews, sunflower seeds, and (initially) foolishly purchased Nicorette 4MG — I chewed my last piece of Nic. on 5/1 and I still haven’t had a tobacco chew/dip since 4/25. I’d seen pictures before, lots….even knew a kid in college who had to have a gum biopsy/graft in college. Didn’t care…don’t know why. I too am Tom (minus the athleticism) I’m a man who never cries. My wife and I have never been able to have kids and are currently seeking adoption. It’s been a stressful process. (perfect scapegoat for dipping to a moron) — Jenny and Tom, your story brought me to tears. It touched me more than any pictures/other stories I’ve seen/heard including the college buddy of mine who showed me the graft patch on his gum. I will not touch the stuff again. and I am here daily to make that commitment and seek help when needed and, hopefully, provide it at some point. I assure you this will not be the last time I read this story and I wont hesitate to share with someone else if I find someone with an addiction. Praying for you and your children and again, thank you kindly for sharing this. Tom, I know you’re upstairs reading this, rest easy knowing how many people you and your wife’s story has touched. I look forward to meeting you face to face when my time comes so I may shake your hand, give you a hug, and say thank you.

    Keep Calm and Quit on,

    David S

    1. Hi David, I am Tom’s youngest daughter and I just want to thank you for sharing. These comments mean so much to all of us. It is amazing that my dad’s story helps others to stay strong and quit their addiction. Although I would do anything to have my dad back, it makes me feel better that people can rely on his story to help them – it almost gives his death meaning. Please do seek the help you need and refer back to my dad’s story when you feel the urge to chew. Take care.

  15. Thanks for sharing your story. Am dip free for 20 days now and was thinking about getting a can because im stressed out but after reading this and thinking about what it would do to my family, I guess i dont need that dip after all thanks again

  16. Thank you for sharing! This story rings true for so many, to include myself…you never think about the consequences or think it wont be you.

    I read this on day 2..praying it wont be me

    RIP Tom….your memory will live on in the Quitters that stayed true because of you.

  17. I don’t chew, never have, but, this story touched my heart. Thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry for your loss. Thoughts and wishes to you and yours all everyone facing the challenge to stop.

  18. Usually I read these stories an remain unfazed. However, I’m finding it difficult to keep my chew in my mouth, while I read it.

    I definitely am giving serious thought to ending this habit, having been moved by this emotional piece.

    Perhaps, this will be my last tin of tobacco.

    I’m sure your husbands story, will save many lives. Lives where children wont have to say goodbye to their daddy’s.

  19. Oh Jenny, Your story breaks my heart. My husband doesn’t want to quit. I’m afraid of your story becoming my story. My husband, too, is so giving and selfless, yet he chooses the can over me and our 4 young children. Any one who reads this please pray for my husband, Dante. Pray that he gets the desire and the strength to quit. I’m praying for you Jenny, you are living my worst fear. I pray God gives you strength and comfort. I am so sorry for your loss, and so grateful that you shared your story.

    1. I read this to my husband who dips five (yes I said five) cans of grizzly long cut every day. He has said a thousand times that he is going to quit. Well after being with him 17 yrs he still hasn’t quit. He will make it a day or two and still doesn’t quit. The cost is going to cause us to lose our home. He spend 15$ per day on dip. Please pray for him.

  20. I’m sitting in a deer stand. I’m 41. I quit 4 days ago. I have a can in the stand but I haven’t used it yet. This story gave me the strength to throw it out. Thank you for sharing.

  21. I’ve been off the can for 4 months and have visited this story many times when feeling weak. It hits home every time. Thank you for sharing and God Bless your family.

  22. Every time I get an urge to chew I read your story and I read if a lot I am 4 weeks quit this tues!!!

  23. This story means a lot to me. I’m 16 now but when I was 10 my Dad was diagnosed with the same cancer at the base of his tounge. He had surgery, chemo, and radiation and we were blessed that it went away. I just wanted to saw how much this means to me because I can relate to it in so many ways. Thanks again. Robert

  24. Jenny, I just read your story. My gosh how similar to my journey this far. My wife is a high school teacher also. She tells her class about chewing and what it does. She shows films about it. Yet she married someone that dipped. All of the threats, broken promises and arguments……Been there, done that. I finally realized how selfish I have been to continue dipping. I have a loving wife and three beautiful daughters who count on me for security and love. I flushed the can on May-29th. Yep, Just last Saturday. I’ve dipped for 34 years. Saturday I finally woke up. It wasn’t planned, I just couldn’t let this little 2-1/2 inch can CONTROL ME ANYMORE!!!
    When I read your story I kept thinking ….OH MY GOSH!! This could be me! What a motivation and eye opener. I just want to tell you how much your story has given me a clear view of how SELFISH I’ve been. I am so sorry for your loss but please know this….You just helped this addict win his life back. Every time I get a craving or get weak I will remember this story and the events that you wrote about. Thank you for the love you have for Tom and other by sharing your pain.

    God Bless,

    1. Very heart breaking .. My prayers for you and your children. You have such strength and love! Thankfully my husband quit almost one year ago.Praying it’s not too late .it took 30 years and many heart palpitations to make him stop for good.. Sending hugs your way.

  25. My wife just started chewing. She use to smoke, but now she’s using chew to “help her” quit smoking. She thinks it’s harmless. I tell her to stop all the time. I even provide the facts to her of why she should quit. She doesn’t listen to me. She’s really stubborn. She doesn’t realize that her chewing affects not just her but everyone who cares and loves her. Recently, I’ve been so down about it. After reading your story, it brought tears to my eyes. I’m going to make her read, and I really hope this makes a difference. I’m sending my prayers to your family! God Bless!

  26. Wow this sounds like my husband. Told me he would quit when our son was bored. He picked it back up because of work stress. Then gave the whole “no chewing thing” for mothers day. I catch him sneaking all the time. He thinks I’m dumb. I don’t know what else I can do. He thinks it won’t happen. I just can pray. Thinking of you guys and sending prayers.

    1. Logan – just wanted to reply here since you’re using an email addres that doens’t exist. Your comments have been deleted and no more will be approved. Thank you.

  27. I’m so sorry for your loss, Jenny, but how do you know that Tom’s cancer was caused by tobacco?

    1. Perry, I don’t go on this site very often, so I didn’t see your question until today. During Tom’s diagnosis and treatment, we say 5 different doctors – ENT, oral surgeon, oncologists, and radiation doctors. All of them confirmed that the cancer was caused by chewing tobacco. He knew it too! He felt so bad that he didn’t quit, and he put all of us through this. Unfortunately, it was too late for him. Fortunately for all of you, it is not too late!

        1. Amen to that. Every time I read it, I get stronger and can survive the cravings easier.
          Thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry for your loss.

  28. Thank you for sharing this story. I quit chew almost nine months ago. According to my daughter, “my daddy doesn’t eat dirt anymore”. I lied to her for her first three years that I ate dirt. I woke up with a bump on the roof of my mouth last year. I got lucky….very lucky it turned out to be nothing. But that spurred me to quit. Stories like the one above help to keep me strong. My heart goes out to your family, it very easily could be my wife authoring it. God bless.

  29. WOW! Reading your story breaks my heart. I am visiting this site because yesterday I saw my 3 year old son walking around holding his “eww can” pretending to dip, so he can be like his daddy. It breaks my heart of the example I have set for my children. Now to read this and I see myself. I have rationalized so many times how I won’t get cancer. Today I’m done! Please please pray for me as I quit dipping.

  30. Jenny,

    I quit smoking at 13 years and decided to use dip to help me quite. I dipped when I was in the Marines so I thought it would work. It has only been three months and I am already dipping over a can a day. My wife has wanted me to quit and I have wanted to but the addiction is so powerful. I thought I would look online to see how other people have quit and then I came across this site and your families story. It is heartbreaking and my families thoughts and prays are with you guys. I want you to know, because of your story, I paused in writing this to get up and throw away my new can of grizzly and my bottle because I am done. Thank you for sharing your story… it just changed my life.

  31. Thank you for sharing. This really makes me think about my choosing dip over my wife and two toddler daughters as the most selfish thing I have ever done to date. I am going to promise myself and my family to never dip again.

  32. This is Jenny Kern. Thank you so much for posting how Tom’s story has helped you to quit chewing. I miss Tom so much, and coming here to see how his life (and death) are making a difference comforts me. Thank you!

  33. I re-read this article often. I’d like to once again thank Jenny Kern for sending it. It’s a very stark reminder of the battle that we face on a daily basis.

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