Cancer: Unit 1

What is cancer and why should we care?

The purpose of this unit is to engage students on the topic of cancer, by showing them how they can be personally impacted by cancer and by explaining how major questions in the cancer field impact our ability to treat cancer successfully. Students learn about how we know what causes cancer and how their own personal choices can affect their likelihood of developing cancer.

Lesson 1

Why should we care about cancer?

This lesson engages students on the idea that cancer is relevant to young people, not simply a disease of old age. It uses Steve Jobs as a case study example of how a cancer that manifests clinical symptoms as a person ages may actually have arisen when the person was young. Students will learn when Jobs’ pancreatic cancer developed and when it spread to his liver and lung and hence evaluate whether his choice at the age of 56 to delay pancreatic surgery for several months actually impacted his life expectancy. They will also discuss how early exposure to carcinogens may have impacted his cancer development.

Objectives – Demonstrate why cancer is relevant to young people.
– Identify lifestyle choices that may lead to increased risk of developing cancer later in life.
– Relate how metastasis is significant in cancer mortality.
Activities Steve Jobs case study
Materials Printed Materials:
– Lesson worksheet
Homework Written reflection: What lifestyle choices do I make that could predispose me to developing cancer later in life?

Lesson 2

How has our understanding of cancer changed over time?

This lesson reviews how cancer has been viewed through history. Students will learn how historical context has always influenced how cancer has been perceived and will investigate the technological breakthroughs that have led to our understanding of cancer biology. Students will come to appreciate how what was once a death sentence, is now often treatable.

Objectives – Describe how our ideas of cancer have evolved from initial descriptions of a disease of fluids, to our current understanding that it is a disease of cells.
– Explain how breakthroughs in technology have affected cancer research.
– Describe how historical context has limited cancer research.
Activities Jigsaw: Historical figures in cancer research & timeline
Materials Printed Materials:
– Jigsaw readings
– Lesson worksheet
– Student workbook
Homework Worksheet: Read Lesson 1.3 in the Student Work-book & answer questions.

Lesson 3

What do we now know about what causes cancer?

This lesson introduces students to the idea that carcinogens can cause cancer by damaging the DNA of genes involved in cell growth. Students will learn about the different assays that are used to evaluate carcinogenicity of substances that we encounter in our daily lives.

Objectives – Identify which genes need to be mutated to cause unregu-lated cell growth.
– Define the term ‘carcinogen’ and explain how carcinogens can act to mutate DNA.
– Explain how the Ames test identifies carcinogens.
– Explain the importance of dose and potency to whether a compound is a carcinogen in humans.
Activities Ames test on food additives
Materials Printed Materials:
– Lesson worksheet
– Ames database sheet

Other Materials:
– HW video
Homework Watch a video clip of Bruce Ames about the misconceptions that arise from reports on Ames test results.

Lesson 4

How can we identify a novel carcinogen?

In the Infectious Diseases module, students learn to prove that a pathogen is responsible for an infectious disease, using Koch’s postulates. In this lesson, students understand that Koch’s postulates cannot be applied to carcinogens that are not infective agents, and that it is impossible to establish causation when dealing with diseases of unknown and complex origins such as cancer. Instead, students will learn about Hill’s postulates which use correlation to determine the likelihood of a particular agent being a carcinogen. They will use Hill’s postulates to evaluate the evidence that specific carcinogens ’cause’ certain types of cancer.

Objectives – Describe Hill’s postulates and compare and contrast them to Koch’s postulates.
– Explain the limitations of Hill’s postulates with respect to establishing causation as opposed to correlation
Activities Jigsaw: Hill’s postulates to evaluate carcinogens
Materials Printed Materials:
– Lesson worksheet
– HW worksheet
Homework Worksheet: Read excerpt from The Emperor of All Maladies on how tobacco companies exploited the challenges of proving causality between smoking and lung cancer.

Lesson 5

How do we determine cancer risk?

In the final lesson students are introduced to important cancer terms that they will encounter in the media including the concepts of risk and exposure. Using population statistics to calculate risk factors, they will determine how to assess the risk of developing different kinds of cancers and will be able to evaluate the choices they themselves make. In this way they will begin to learn how to make informed decisions to minimize their own risk of developing cancer.

Objectives – Explain the terms “survival rate”, “incidence rate”, and “age-adjusted mortality rate” in the context of cancer statistics.
– Explain how population statistics can be used to calculate risk factors for cancer.
– Apply risk factors to make an informed decision on behavior.
Activities Calculation of odds ratio to determine cancer risk factors
Materials Printed Materials:
– Lesson worksheet
– HW worksheet (color)

Other Materials:
– Calculators
Homework Worksheet: Analysis of 1-, 5-, and 10-year survival rates for different types of cancer.

Teacher Prep: Unit 1 Lesson Overview Videos

In the YouTube embed below, click the order listing in the upper right to toggle the display for the full playlist.