Use of the Published Lance Armstrong Cancer Story: To Teach Health Science Content to High School Students

By Burns, E. Robert | The American Biology Teacher, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Use of the Published Lance Armstrong Cancer Story: To Teach Health Science Content to High School Students


Burns, E. Robert, The American Biology Teacher


Lance Armstrong (2000) authored a book titled It's Not About the Bike--My Journey Back to Life, regarding his battle with testicular cancer. It became a New York Times Bestseller and was selected by the School Library Journal as one of the "Best Adult Books for High School Students for 2001." The goal of this project was to determine if this published medical story, along with Mr. Armstrong's status as a world-renowned athlete, could foster interested learning about cancer biology and relevant normal human biology for teachers and their students. A professional development workshop was designed and offered on two occasions to different groups of K-14 teachers (N = 52), and a tele-teaching program was offered multiple times to different groups of Grade 7-12 students (N = 117). A professional evaluator external to the project evaluated both arms of this study. These sessions were part of a statewide outreach program called the Partners in Health Sciences (PIHS) program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). PIHS began in 1991 (Burns, 2002) and as of August 1, 2006 has recorded 66,482 hours of training consumed by 17,004 participants (9,596 of which were Grades 712 students). The PIHS program has included a large amount of cancer-related content (Burns & Lindsey, 2004).

Protocol Used

Quotes related to the medical and biological aspects of Mr. Armstrong's story were taken from the book (with permission from the publisher) and used as "interest hooks/gateways" to engage the audience in learning the relevant health science content. The normal and/or cancer cell biology pertaining to each quotation became the workshop syllabus. The title of the workshop and the ITV sessions was: Testicular Cancer and Other Tumors of the Germ Cells: Male and Female - A Detailed Look at the Lance Armstrong Cancer Story. What follows are abbreviated versions of the content presented/discussed in the teacher workshop. The workshop syllabus is at available online at: http://k12education.uams.edu.

Sample Syllabus Content

I Have Cancer. I'm 25. Why Should I Have Cancer?

A neoplasm is a new growth/formation in the body originating in one's own cells, probably as an event in a single cell. Neoplasms exist in two major forms: benign or malignant. All malignant neoplasms are called cancers. Although "tumor" actually means a swelling, the word tumor is commonly used in place of "cancer" or "neoplasm."

In general, the incidence of cancer increases as age increases, but there are certain types of cancers that have a peak incidence in the early decades of life. Although a rare disease, testicular cancer has its peak incidence in young men age 18-30. Thus the importance of TSE (testicular self-examination) in this age range (TSE cards were obtained from the Lance Armstrong Foundation and given to all participants).

Cancer, unlike an inflammatory process such as an infected hair follicle, abscessed tooth, ingrown toenail, etc., is not usually associated with pain in its early stages. Without pain as a warning sign, an early stage cancer can be present, but completely un-noticed by the host and the doctor, i.e., it is clinically silent. This is why BSE (breast self examination), TSE, mammography, colonoscopy, digital rectal exam of the prostate, stool guaiac, blood and urine tests, chest X-ray, etc. are so important. They are designed to detect the presence of cancer when the person does not know that cancer is present because nothing hurts and nothing is wrong with any bodily function.

It requires a mass containing one billion tumor cells to become morphologically/clinically observable as a very small lesion. It can take several years and 20-30 doublings to produce the one billion cells from the single cell beginning. Consequently, a tumor mass that is diagnosed "early" by current technological means actually contains at least one billion cells and probably has been "silently" present for months to years. …

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