This April will mark the 10th annual Philadelphia Oral Cancer Walk & 5K hosted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. Through this event, dental students, with the help of faculty, alumni and local businesses, work with the Philadelphia community to raise awareness for oral cancer by performing screenings and fundraising for the Oral Cancer Foundation in its work to provide access to care. Last year, the event raised $18,000 for the organization, with more than 500 runners, volunteers and patients who participated.
Each year, this event gives oral cancer survivors — many of whom have gone through surgery and radiation therapy — a place to meet and share their experiences. The walk gives them a sense of community and the reassurance that they are not alone.
In the United States, the National Cancer Institute estimates 49,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer each year. And when comparing it to the 250,000 new cases of breast cancer each year, oral cancer is rather uncommon. But even though only 1 percent of the population is expected to be diagnosed in their lifetime, oral cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer in the head and neck region.
The key to treating oral cancer is early detection. If a cancerous lesion in the mouth is detected early, the five-year survival rate hovers at 80 percent. If it’s not detected until a later stage, survival drops below 40 percent. Most patients with oral cancer are not diagnosed until later stages, after it has spread to their lymph nodes and other organs such as the liver and lungs. Since late stage diagnosis occurs most often, the statistics show that every hour, roughly one person dies from oral cancer.
In the fight against this type of cancer, the dentist plays an important role. Frequent visits to the dentist may allow for early detection of suspicious lesions. Talking with patients about oral cancer also improves their understanding of risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol consumption.
Students at Pennsylvania take their roles as providers and patient educators seriously. ASDA president and third-year student Roopali Kulkarni, who is also pursuing a master’s degree in public health, is one of the organizers of the event. In her third year as a board member, she says that “being a part of the Oral Cancer Walk is one of the most rewarding experiences. The event creates a sense of community and sheds light on the seriousness of the disease, while also celebrating the stories of the survivors.” Starting as a grassroots effort by students, the Oral Cancer Walk has caught the eyes of multiple faculty members at Penn who have been enthusiastic in their support.
Our profession needs to take the lead on targeting this cancer. Dentists should be aware of the seriousness of this disease and demonstrate proficiency in performing head and neck exams, detecting suspicious lesions and providing optimal care for diagnosed patients.
At Penn, this awareness started with students who wanted to make a difference. But it shouldn’t stop there. These movements need to go beyond one dental school and one organization. Oral cancer detection, treatment and rehabilitation must become a priority among other schools and other organizations. Only then can our profession say we are making meaningful contributions that benefit our patients. Let’s make the phrase “I’m an oral cancer survivor” become the rule, not the exception.
~Brian Carr, Pennsylvania ’19