Standing in front of a group of rowdy children, Eastern Kentucky native Melissa Hounshell only has to do one thing to grab the kids’ attention – bring out Mr. Gross Mouth.
Aptly named, Mr. Gross Mouth is a prop set of teeth and gums beleaguered by various medical problems caused by smoking and/or poor hygiene – rotting teeth, tongue cancer, lesions and more. The kids excitedly voice their shock and disgust as Hounshell educates them on the bad habits that might lead to such a set of teeth in real life
As the UK Markey Cancer Center’s community outreach director, Hounshell spends her days traveling across Kentucky, partnering with businesses and programs in local communities to raise awareness and educate the public about cancer risk factors and screenings
One of her latest endeavors is a youth outreach program called Get Fit, Be Smart, Don’t Start. Using eye-catching props like Mr. Gross Mouth, the program encourages young children to take an interest in their parents’ health in addition to their own
Many adults in the region avoid cancer screenings out of fear of what they might find, which is why Hounshell said it’s so important to get children involved.
“We feel like it’s really important to work with children in the state,” Hounshell said. “What we’re really trying to do is reach that younger population and change that mindset, to make them understand the importance and value of health and wellness throughout their lives.”
“I encourage kids many times to go and talk with their parents or grandparents about either stopping smoking or getting mammograms or colonoscopies.”
– Melissa Hounshell
Overall, the youth program emphasizes a healthy lifestyle encompassing a good diet, staying active, avoiding smoking and tobacco products, and even understanding the dangers of distracted driving. But considering Kentucky’s No. 1 ranking in both cancer incidence and mortality in the country, the likelihood of these children having some connection to cancer in their family is high, and Hounshell hopes her message of prevention resonates with the young audience
“I encourage kids many times to go and talk with their parents or grandparents about either stopping smoking or getting mammograms or colonoscopies, because so many times a child can ask someone to do something and they’ll do it,” she said.
As Markey ramps up its efforts to bring the message about cancer prevention to the younger generation of Kentuckians, it also offers students the opportunity to visit the cancer center to learn more about what it takes to fight the deadly disease. Since 2012, Markey has hosted Meet the Researchers Day, an educational event offered as a prize for two schools in the region who raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Pennies for Patients program.
During Meet the Researchers Day, students rotate between presentations from Markey clinicians and researchers and are also given tours of clinic space and a research lab. During the lab tours, they get the opportunity to perform experiments with basic lab equipment.
UK pediatric hematologist/oncologist John D’Orazio, MD, PhD, has participated in the event since its inception, giving youngsters a quick overview of what exactly cancer is and how it’s treated.
“The best part is when I get asked questions that show some of these kids are serious about pursuing a medical career,” D’Orazio said. “All of us look back and have a moment that inspired us to become who we are. Meet the Researchers Day has the potential to inspire curious kids.”