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Graduate to focus on oral cancer prevention

by Mary Helen Yarborough
Public Relations
Thirty years ago, Gabrielle Ferguson Cannick had not yet seen the light of day as her father joined the processional of new MUSC College of Dental Medicine (CDM) graduates in 1979. Two weeks later, she was born, setting off for a life charted with academic honors and achievements.
Dr. Gabrielle Ferguson Cannick
On Friday, she earns the rare distinction of receiving a DMD/PhD, an eight-year grind in which her doctorate in epidemiology focused on oral cancer prevention and established a precedent for dental school education on oral cancer examinations.
 The cum laude 2001 Furman graduate who majored in biology, Cannick now looks forward to working with her father, Larry Ferguson, DMD, in his private Charleston practice where her mother, who has a master’s in social work, serves as the office manager.
“I’m more of an active-oriented person. I want to be out there in the community serving people,” said the Charleston native who admits to not selecting dentistry in her youth.
“My dad worked long, hard hours in his West Ashley office when I was younger; so his practice took away a lot of his time from the family,” she recalled. Later, while in college, she developed more of an interest in the field when she worked in her father’s office.
“But I was really inspired when I shadowed a dentist in Greenville. That’s when I realized that you can be in the medical field and focus on oral health. Good oral health is important not only to one’s self-esteem, but to a person’s overall health.”

While a student at MUSC, she met and wed her husband, Leander Cannick III, M.D. He’s now a radiation oncology resident at MUSC. The two have a 19-month-old daughter, Elizabeth Ann.
Cannick plans to be active in community dentistry focusing her expertise to tackle the often undiagnosed oral cancer problem that has inordinately ravaged poor, rural and minority populations. She also is committed to working with nonprofit clinics to extend dental health services to the poor and uninsured.
“South Carolina is ranked in the top five in the country in terms of oral cancer rates. African- Americans are at a higher risk than Caucasians. We have to improve our prevention and detection of oral cancer,  and improve outcomes,” Cannick said, adding that regular screening of patients is imperative. “If it is caught early, it can be treated. The causes of oral cancer are still not completely understood, but much of it is linked to risk factors, such as tobacco use.”
In her dissertation, Cannick describes oral cancer as a significant public health issue in the United States. “However, few studies have examined the relation between oral cancer education and the oral cancer prevention and detection skills of dental students.”
Her dissertation reported the utilization of the “Precede-Proceed” framework to develop, implement, and evaluate a randomized pretest/post-test controlled study to examine the association between specific oral cancer education and oral cancer prevention and detection skills among first and second year pre-doctoral dental students enrolled at MUSC.
Results from her study demonstrated the effectiveness of faculty-facilitated standardized patient-based training on the oral cancer prevention and early detection skills of dental students.

“The use of Precede-Proceed sets a precedent for designing a standardized oral cancer curriculum for a wide range of health professions disciplines.”
Cannick explained that health professional schools can adapt this framework to incorporate faculty-facilitated, standardized patient-based training and required competency measurement into existing early clinical experiences to train students in oral cancer prevention and detection.
Cannick said she is in discussions with MUSC CDM on collaborative research she would like to undertake.
Meanwhile, graduation weekend should be a reason for the Ferguson family to be proud. The oldest of four children, Cannick shares the academically-inclined tendency of her parents and siblings.
Her sister is earning her doctorate in history from Ohio State University. Her brother graduated May 3 from Florida A&M with a master’s in Business Administration; and her youngest sister is finishing her first year of law school at the University of Miami, Florida.
Advice to her family and others: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind; and value education,” she said. “And like my grandfather said, the two things that can never be taken away from you are your faith and your intellect.”

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Catalyst Online is published weekly by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to The Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.