Nearly two years into the “Eradicate Oral Cancer in Eastern Kentucky” project, the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (UKCD) continues its work to raise public awareness of the symptoms of oral cancer and help connect patients who need additional care to cancer specialists in Lexington.
UKCD received a $1 million grant from the United Health Foundation in 2018 to tackle the high prevalence of oral cancer in Harlan, Letcher, and Pike counties in Eastern Kentucky and lead an integrated outreach and care program delivered to local residents through their local health departments.
And despite COVID-19, UKCD said, their work continues. Grant education director Dr. Pam VanArsdall said that once the pandemic hit, the team had to get creative.
“Oral cancer didn’t stop when COVID-19 started,” VanArsdall said. “This work is important and must continue. We are intentionally designing the grant activities to leave a legacy behind which will provide sustained benefits for Eastern Kentucky residents.”
Kentucky has one of the nation’s highest incidences of oral cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the prevalence of oral cancer in the targeted counties is as much as 54% higher than the state average. Pike County has the highest rate of oral cancer in the state for women and people 50 years old and younger. Harlan County has the second highest rate of oral cancer for people over the age of 65.
Oral cancer has a high rate of mortality, UKCD said, with only approximately 57% of individuals surviving five years after diagnosis due in large part to late discovery. If oral cancer is found early, UKCD added, survival rates are excellent.
Prior to the pandemic, the team provided more than a thousand free oral cancer screenings in the three targeted counties. The plan is to resume those screening events once it is safe to do so.
In the meantime, VanArsdall said the team is carrying out a multipronged awareness campaign to continue educating people about the causes of oral cancer and how to prevent it, how to perform your own self-exam, and the importance of a yearly oral cancer screening by a health professional.
This work includes educating community groups at farmers’ markets, feeding programs, Food City groceries, and local businesses. It also will include lectures for nursing, medical, and dental hygiene students at the University of Pikeville, American National University, and Big Sandy Community and Technical College. The group will work with high schools to create curriculums to curb tobacco use, as tobacco is responsible for 75% of oral cancer cases, as well.
One of the biggest ongoing efforts includes educating healthcare professionals through in-person and Zoom meetings about oral cancer and how they might increase tobacco cessation efforts in their practices, UKCD said, including educational resources for patients to learn about local, state, and national programs to help them quit.
“Education and yearly oral health screenings are extremely important for highlighting the risk and early detection of oral cancer,” said Dr. Melvyn Yeoh, chief of the Division of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at UKCD and principal investigator of the grant. “By bringing this project to Eastern Kentucky, we seek to decrease the rates and catastrophic outcomes that oral cancer can cause.”