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"An Effort from the Heart"

UB Dental School's Annual Oral Cancer Screening in Hispanic Community Reaches More Than 100 People

By Lois Baker

Release Date: December 17, 2008

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "Boca Sana Cuerpo Sano" said the flyer posted in the Judge J. Mattina Community Health Center on Buffalo's largely Hispanic Lower West Side: "Healthy Mouth Healthy Body."

It alerted the community to the upcoming free oral cancer screening at the clinic, carried out by faculty, dental residents and students from the School of Dental Medicine at the University at Buffalo.

More than 100 people from the surrounding neighborhood showed up during the two-day event to have their teeth checked for cavities, gum disease and their mouths for signs of oral cancer. Some were regular patients at the health center, some were not, but they came anyway and brought family. Five patients were found to have suspicious lesions.

"We were bombarded," said Yoly Gonzalez, D.D.S., the event's initial organizer. "People wanted to be screened. They brought their relatives. They didn't come for the free toothbrush and toothpaste."

This was the screening's fifth year, the most-well-attended yet, but it wasn't always so successful. Gonzalez, a UB clinical assistant professor of oral diagnostic sciences, along with a cadre of students, residents and additional faculty, had to do a bit of cajoling to get the project started.

A native Venezuelan, Gonzalez earned a dental degree from the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas, where the fifth year of study was devoted to community service. She spent six months of that year working with the Guajiros and Piaroas Indians in the Venezuelan jungle. When Gonzalez joined the UB dental school faculty, she found a void.

"In Venezuela we were always linked to the community. Here, we didn't have a connection."

The West Side health center, established by Kaleida Health to serve the Hispanic community, was the logical place to create such a connection, so Gonzalez paid a visit and brought along a few students.

Energized by the experience, the students formed a chapter of the Hispanic Dental Association. Wanting to do something other than have parties, the members decided to conduct a yearly free oral cancer screening at the clinic.

That first year Gonzalez and a small UB team, with the support of Rene Perez-Bode, D.D.S., the full-time clinic dentist, set up tables in the clinic lobby stocked with information on dental health and oral cancer.

"It was a very slow beginning," Gonzalez said. "Many people didn't even know there was such a thing as oral cancer. They'd say, 'You can get cancer in your mouth?!'

Volunteers took a brief medical history of those initial patients to make sure patients weren't afraid of dentists or allergic to the latex gloves worn by the examiner, and a member of the team conducted the exam. If something suspicious was detected, Gonzalez made an appointment for the patient at the UB dental school clinic on the spot.

The following year the volunteers added a table on smoking cessation. With funds from a New York State Quit Line grant, they gave away toothbrushes, toothpaste, apples and bottled water. The names of smokers who were ready to quit were passed along to the Quit Line, which provided two weeks of nicotine replacement patches and continued encouragement.

Attendance at the yearly event increased gradually. "It's been an effort from the heart," said Gonzalez. "It grew little by little."

This year a team of 10 students, faculty and staff, screened more than 50 patients a day over the two-day event. Heidi Crow, D.D.S., UB associate professor of oral diagnostic sciences, had joined the group and there now were three dental chairs at the clinic -- two for routine screening and a third for patients whose teeth need immediate attention.

The team's next step is to raise money for patients who fall into the gap -- those who can't afford dental insurance but aren't eligible for Medicare. They also would like to conduct screenings twice-a-year and reach more people.

A visit by Mark King, the president of the regional American Cancer Society's Board of Advisors at the most recent screening, may help that effort. Impressed by the UB dental school's event, King wants to take the UB model for oral cancer screening to other communities and raise funds to support screening.

"Our main objective is to provide a service to our local community," said Gonzalez. "It's wonderful to help people anywhere, but we have needs right here."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.