On April 14, 2012, the Student National Dental Association (SNDA) chapter of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry held its fourth annual “Walk to Make Oral Cancer History.” This year’s walk was particularly special, as it was dedicated to Rachel “Poppy” Kahan, a 27-year-old stage 4 oral cancer patient who had undergone extensive chemotherapy, radiation and surgery during the past year.

The lead organizer of the event was the president of SNDA, Kaisha Thomas, a very busy third-year student at the School of Dentistry. Having served as a volunteer two years ago and an organizer last year, Kaisha was well aware of what it takes to orchestrate such an event. And, with the help of approximately 20 volunteers from her school, Kaisha was able to put on what was by far the school’s most successful fundraiser yet.

The event took place at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, which features a lake surrounded by a track that made for the perfect venue for the 5K walk/run. Of the estimated 140 people who turned out for the event, many were students and faculty members of the School of Dentistry, while many others were friends and family of Rachel Kahan. Rachel’s supporters, clad in the green of her beloved Michigan State University alma mater, organized a walk-within-the-walk they called “Parade for Poppy.”

There are many costs associated with putting on a charity walk, including a park rental fee, chair and table rental fees, insurance fees, and food and beverage expenses. To fund these costs, Kaisha and her SNDA team organized a “Scrubs Sale” in the fall of 2011. For $38, a School of Dentistry student or faculty member could purchase a set of scrubs with her or his name embroidered. The $3,000 profit resulting from the sale of over 200 sets of scrubs covered most of the event’s costs, including pre-walk refreshments for all participants and a barbeque after the walk.

Several people and sponsors donated prizes for the top fundraisers. This included a gift certificate provided by a walker whose husband had recently died of oral cancer. The top three fundraisers were Erica Cornu Knessi (whose father was an oral cancer victim), Lisa Spinoso and Sarah Mars Bowie.

After Kaisha Thomas presented the prizes to the three winners, Dr. Robert Ord, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon form the University of Maryland Medical Center, spoke to the crowd about his extensive experience conducting head and neck cancer surgeries. His words drove home just how severe the treatment for late stage oral cancer can be, and how critical it is to discover the disease at earlier and, better yet, precancerous stages.

Following the walk, third and fourth year students from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry gave oral cancer screenings under the supervision of Dr. Andrea Morgan, and those who were screened were given toothbrushes and toothpaste courtesy of the Children’s Oral Health Institute. In addition, Dr. Michael Knorr from Wal-Mart vision gave eye exams to all interested participants.

Clearly, however, the highlight of the event was the appearance of a smiling “Poppy”. Though confined to a wheelchair and dealing with the effects on her on-going chemotherapy treatments, she was a powerful inspiration to all in attendance. Just the day before the event, she had posted a message on her blog providing readers with helpful information regarding the time and location of the walk. Sadly, two weeks later, she passed away.

According to Kaisha Thomas, several oral cancer survivors attended the event. “They were all women, they were all non-smokers, and they all developed oral cancer at a young age,” she said. “I used to think of oral cancer as a disease that just affected older men who smoked or chewed tobacco, but that’s clearly not the case any more.” As Kaisha points out, the fastest-growing cause of oral cancer today is the sexually-transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV. As a result, a growing percentage of oral cancer’s victims are like Rachel Kahan: young females who do not use tobacco.

It is a fitting and touching testament to “Poppy” that this year’s event raised over $14,000, more than had been raised in the prior three events combined. The key to reducing the number of young women who it the future are afflicted with the disease that took Rachel Kahan’s life is increasing the public’s awareness of the need for regular oral cancer screenings. Fortunately, thanks to the extraordinary passion and efforts of people like Kaisha Thomas, impressive progressive is being achieved toward the goal of “making oral cancer history”–one footstep at a time.