Seven Walks and Forever Friendships

The Oral Cancer Foundation Walk for Awareness in Bethlehem, PA, became much more than a walk. At our monthly meetings, in addition to discussing the business of the walk, we celebrated birthdays, discussed ways to cope with treatment effects, and supported one another through personal struggles. Our walk lasted seven years, but the friendships survived almost two decades and still going strong.

It all began after I met the one and only Brian Hill after he gave a presentation on the east coast at an NYU dental school graduation. As a survivor myself, I was inspired to play a part in making a difference. Hosting an Oral Cancer Foundation Walk for Awareness seemed like a perfect way to give back, support an organization I cared about, and raise awareness in my community.

I broached the idea of working with two local oral cancer survivors and two hygienists. Intimately understanding the effects of this disease, everyone felt compelled and eager to play a part in making a difference.

With all of us working full-time jobs, simplicity was our motto. A $50 permit was required to secure the date at a centrally-located public park. We hustled to obtain three event sponsors, hang  20 posters advertising the walk, and gather five raffle items. Two local supermarkets donated bananas, apples, chips, and water bottles. On the day of the walk, we each had a manageable job: registration, raffle, set-up, signage, the screening, and the MC, which was my forte.

Mostly friends and family attended the first year. At registration, everyone was given a name tag and a sticker that read: ‘Walking In Honor Of’ or ‘Walking In Memory Of.’ These stickers promoted dialogue among us, as did the survivor buttons, displaying the number of years one survived the disease. David Eiskowitz proudly wore two ’10’ buttons and one ‘2’ button, the longest living survivor among us.

After the walk, we gathered for the raffle and heard several survivor stories, which was the most impactful and memorable part of every event. A dental hygiene student told the story of her grandma, who came to her for a cleaning at the school, where she noticed a suspicious lesion. Ken shared how he was a 911 responder and developed a mouth sore a few months later. Ed said he always thought he had bad breath and gargled far back in his throat with a mouthwash containing alcohol several times a day for two decades, and maybe the alcohol contributed to his diagnosis. The survivors ranged from 26-79. Everyone’s story had a common thread: surprise, fear, courage, and resilience. The messages resonated with one and all.

As we said goodbye to the attendees two hours later, everyone said, ‘At my next dental appointment, I’m gonna be sure they do an oral cancer screening!” A few people asked about getting involved. The following year, our core committee grew by three more dedicated people, one of which was Eileen, who lost her 26-year-