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Virginia Dental Association takes oral cancer awareness to the street — literally

March 31, 2016

By Michelle Manchir

Virginia volunteers: Drs. Michael Link, left, and Anthony Peluso take a break from participating in a "Where's the Chair?" event in August 2015 in downtown Virginia Beach.
If patients could get oral cancer screenings in two minutes at the mall or on their way to a concert, would it make a difference for patient wellbeing?  
It's a question Virginia Dental Association members are attempting to answer with their ongoing "Where's the Chair?" campaign.
Teams of volunteers, often in partnerships with community centers or local events, place dental chairs in conspicuous places including recreational centers, outdoor malls and street festivals. Anyone who walks by and would like to spend a few minutes getting screened can do so.
"We do not have a specific target audience," said Elise Rupinski, director of marketing and programs at the VDA, who also helped organize the events.
An estimated 8,000 people die each year from oral cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. Early detection is key to increasing the survival rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The ADA Council on Scientific Affairs encourages clinicians to provide adult patients with thorough hard-tissue and soft-tissue exams, including lymph node examination, following completion of the patient's health history and risk assessment.   Dentists must thoroughly check the oral cavity for potentially malignant lesions, and suspicious lesions that persist for more than two weeks should be reevaluated for biopsy or referral to a specialist, said Dr. Elliot Abt, chair of the council.
The VDA, thanks to help from dentists and dental team volunteers, has hosted five "Where's the Chair?" events each of the past two years, and hopes to do many more.
Dr. Michael Link, immediate past president of the VDA, volunteered at one event last year during an outdoor concert fundraiser. In about two hours he and another dentist screened about 60 patients, he said, and discovered three suspicious lesions. Those patients were referred to their dental homes for follow-up care. For folks who did not have a dental home, the volunteers directed people to VDA dentists for referrals. The events also earned attention from the mainstream media, leading to more exposure and public education.
"It was really a very positive experience," Dr. Link said, adding that many people screened found out for the first time that dentists can help detect oral cancer. "It brought a lot of awareness to what dentists can do."
Dr. Link said pulling the events together took some collaboration with host sites, but with reclining chair donations from the local Mission of Mercy programs and dental volunteers, it is likely doable in other communities.
"The blueprint is very easy, you just have to have motivated people," he said.

Dr. Link, who serves on the VDA's public relations task force, said the events met three of the association's goals: bringing oral cancer awareness to the public, educating patients and expanding on the concept "You can't have a healthy body without a healthy mouth."
"We basically did all of that," he said.
For more information about "Where's the Chair?" visit and search for "Where's the Chair?" For more information about oral cancer, visit Dentists can refer their patients to ADA's consumer website,, for more information about oral cancer.