Like many dental professionals, Dr. Mark Pelletier and his staff at Premier Aesthetic Dentistry outside of Columbia, South Carolina had read numerous articles over the past several years discussing the surprising growth in the number of oral cancer cases. To enhance their ability to detect oral cancer and precancer, they began offering oral cancer screenings using ViziLIte® Plus technology several years ago. Recently, to make the screenings more comfortable and economical, they invested in a state-of-the-art VELscope® oral cancer screening device, which allows them to charge their patients less and does not involve a distasteful oral rinse.

While their regular patients are now aware of the threat posed by oral cancer, Dr. Pelletier and his associates were continually dismayed at how little most new patients knew about this disease. “This was particularly alarming when you consider how many people in this part of the world smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco,” said Kim Young, one of the practice’s hygienists. “So we decided we needed to do something to raise awareness about oral cancer. We did our homework, and we saw on the Oral Cancer Foundation website that putting on a walk seemed to be a good way to raise awareness. So that’s what we did.”

The main person responsible for putting on the 1st Annual Columbia Oral Cancer Walk was Kim. “We wanted to have our walk in April to tie in with Oral Cancer Awareness Month, which didn’t leave us a lot of planning time,” she said, “but we think we did pretty well for our first event.” To drum up interest in the event, Kim sent out news releases to the local media, and two days before the event was interviewed on the local Fox affiliate’s “Good Day, Columbia” television show.

The 5K walk/run took place on April 28 at Saluda Shoals, a large park in Columbia. The course took the walkers and runners along a scenic trail that runs along the Lower Saluda River. Following the walk/run, all but two of the participants received a free oral cancer screening, and the other two were invited to get their screening at Dr. Pelletier’s practice. In fact, Dr. Pelletier plans to offer free screenings to the public on two separate occasions later in the year.

The entire event had only two sponsors: Premier Aesthetic Dentistry and the Oral Cancer Foundation. “We couldn’t have pulled this off without the help of Susan Lauria and Kaitlin Caruso of the Oral Cancer Foundation,” said Kim. “Now that we have the first walk’s experience under our belts, we’ll be able to get other local dental practices and businesses to help sponsor future events.” Does that mean that Kim and Dr. Pelletier are committed to organizing another walk/run next year? “Next year?” asked Kim with a tone of mock indignation. “Every year!”

Awareness of oral cancer might be surprisingly low in South Carolina’s state capitol, but if Dr. Mark Pelletier, Kim Young and other staff members at Premier Aesthetic Dentistry have their way, the number of residents unaware of this disease will soon be headed south.

Literally and figuratively, this group wasn’t going to let a thunderstorm rain on its parade. And they also weren’t about to let the fact that they’re from a small town keep them from raising funds that you’d expect from a big city.