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Throat cancer survivor speaks to Martinsburg High students

David Briles, who spoke in a gravelly voice, showed students the hole that remains in his neck and recounted how he had to learn how to take a shower without drowning

April 18, 2013|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — After throat cancer took his voice box, it took David Briles three years to learn how to speak a complete sentence by burping continuously.

The 59-year-old Charleston, W.Va., native never regained much of his ability to laugh again, but was determined not to use a device known as an electrolarynx in order to talk.

“I didn’t want to sound like a robot,” Briles said Thursday after speaking to Martinsburg High School students about the dangers of tobacco use and how it changed his life.

Briles’ presentation was part of the high school’s annual Strike Out Cancer Week awareness and fundraising event, which is now in its seventh year, according to Assistant Principal Trey Arvon and A Tobacco Awareness Coalition (ATAC) co-chairman George Blough. The Berkeley County anti-tobacco group recently helped arrange for Briles’ visit to Martinsburg High School and four other Berkeley County schools, Blough said.

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Diagnosed with laryngeal cancer at age 40, Briles told students Thursday that he couldn’t swallow his own spit after undergoing aggressive, twice-daily radiation treatments, and recounted that he started smoking again after being deemed to be cancer-free.

Then, when the cancer came back two years later, surgery to have his larynx removed was the only option.

Briles, who spoke in a gravelly voice, showed the students the hole that remains in his neck and recounted how he had to learn how to take a shower without drowning at age 42.

“If I fell out of a boat, I would instantly drown,” Briles told students gathered in the school auditorium.

In place of sinuses, Briles said he has to use filters to screen the air.

“I don’t think any of you want to go through any of this,” Briles said.

Following surgery, Briles said he couldn’t talk at all for three months and was relegated to using a feeding tube, yet craved a Whopper with cheese.

Had it not been for his wife, Briles said he doesn’t know if he would have survived the ordeal.

It was the culmination of his choice to begin using tobacco at the age of 18. He had just joined the U.S. Marine Corps, and Briles said the government at the time was giving soldiers in Vietnam free cigarettes in their rations.

Briles said he was an “average smoker” who might stop smoking for a couple of months before lighting up again.

“If you use tobacco, it’s going to impact your life,” Briles said. “There’s going to be consequences later.”

Briles cited statistics that indicate 530,000 people will die this year due to tobacco use, and blasted the tobacco companies, who he said consider young people “replacements” for those who have succumbed from the drug.

Briles unfurled a long list of 600 ingredients that he said are in cigarettes, and added that exposure to secondhand smoke is just as harmful as smoking.

Briles said West Virginia ranks first nationally for underage use of spit tobacco by males and noted an all-time high of girls using it instead of smoking.

He also pointed to images of new products by tobacco companies that appear to be similar to Tic Tac mints and breath strips, but just as addictive.

“They cannot be made safe,” Briles said.

Briles said after his presentation that he has visited schools in 49 of the state’s 55 counties and has been trying to get to all of them since he started speaking to young people about his experience and the dangers of tobacco use.

Briles’ visits are funded by the West Virginia Tobacco Quitline.

“The more kids I can reach, the better,” Briles said.

Strike Out Cancer Week activities will be culminated today with a varsity baseball game between Martinsburg High School and Musselman High School at P.O. Faulkner Park in Martinsburg.

Opening ceremonies begin at 6:45 p.m. Cancer donation and information booths as well as a memorial and survivor wall will be at the park for the game.

All proceeds benefit Berkeley County Relay for Life. Last year’s Strike Out Cancer event raised more than $13,000, officials have said.

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