Cancer survivor conveys tobacco cessation to students

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Stephan Coleman
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
To drive home the severity of his condition, Bill Bounds shows the Airmen what his meals have consisted of for 15 years since being diagnosed with head and neck cancer: He produces a burger from the bag and drops it into a blender with some water.

Bounds, a U.S. Army veteran, was only 30 years old when he was diagnosed with Squamous cell carcinoma, with the leading cause being attributed to chewing tobacco.

In June, Bounds began speaking to new Airmen in the 81st Training Group each Tuesday as part of the health and wellness center's tobacco cessation program.

"I want to talk to the Airmen fresh out of basic training because once they're permanent party, nobody is going to hold their hand anymore," he said.

Bounds had shown no symptoms of the head and neck cancer, which is typical, until he shaved his beard and revealed a small lesion. That lesion led to more than 20 operations over the course of six years.

The scars on Bounds' face and neck are extensive; his entire neck is covered by skin grafts all over his body. In his series of experimental operations, muscle and skin tissue was taken from his arms, legs and back to replace the damaged tissue on his neck.

"After eight weeks of basic training, you had a new body. After 8 weeks of my initial treatment -- so did I," Bounds explained to the Airmen.

For the past 15 years, Bounds battled with medical expenses that brought him, at times, to homelessness. Overcoming his handicaps was difficult as well, as he couldn't speak for 18 months after his initial treatments and struggled to lift even six pounds. People stare often, and he said parents have even shielded their children from seeing his face.

"I have my military training to thank," said Bounds. "My time in the Army taught me how to survive. With cancer, you find out quickly just how badly you want to live."

Bounds volunteers when he can with the American Cancer Society, but the business he had built before his cancer has been lost. It was through the ACS that Bounds got in touch with the HAWC, said Terri Jordan, 81st Aerospace Medicine Squadron health promotion manager.

New Airmen are exposed to his short presentation each week at the tail end of a day of briefings. Bounds' affliction is not easily hidden as it covers his entire neck and parts of his face, and the Airmen watch him intently as he describes what tobacco has done to his life.

"It's not just smoking," Bounds clarifies. "Tobacco isn't worth it. People move to chewing when they can't smoke, or e-cigarettes, but these all incur the same risks."

With the variety of negative scenarios caused by tobacco, many of the student Airmen have some way of relating to Bounds' condition. Tobacco changed his entire life.

"The Airmen really respond to his presentation," said Senior Airman Andrew Dailey, 81st AMDS. "We've had people who've lost loved ones break down in the classroom because he is such a real reminder of what tobacco can do."

Bounds clarified that his is only one of many negative effects of tobacco usage and that smoking isn't the only damaging form of tobacco. His condition was caused by chewing tobacco and snuff, which are sometimes seen as alternatives to smoking.

His message to the Airmen is clear, "Stay away from tobacco in all forms."