Every day, 4,600 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in the United States and 555 in Canada. According to the American Cancer Society and Canadian Cancer Society, two out of five people in North America are expected to develop cancer at some time during their lifetime. And while the five-year survival rate has risen to more than 60 percent, more than 1,500 Americans and 216 Canadians still die of cancer every day.

The numbers are staggering. In a recent class at Calvin College, biology professor Amy Wilstermann asked her students if they personally knew of someone who had been diagnosed with cancer. Every hand in the class went up.

That pervasiveness is one of the reasons Wilstermann decided to offer the course “Cancer: A Multidisciplinary Exploration of a Complex Disease.”

“My goal is for students to think about the impacts of a cancer diagnosis,” she said. “Who, besides the patient and family members, springs into action? There’s the health care team, social workers, insurance professionals, pastors, research scientists perhaps. What does excellent cancer care look like, and how can people with a variety of skills and perspectives work together to provide quality care?”

Wilstermann is working with students to provide an answer to that question. The honors interim class, which was recently recognized by the National Collegiate Honors Council for an “Innovations in Best Practices in Honors” award, is open to students in any discipline.

Daily speakers who share their stories make the narrative of cancer real to the students. Childhood cancers, late effects of cancer, cancer treatments, genetics of cancer, clinical trials, and end-of-life care are all topics addressed by experts, including cancer survivors.

Amy Colthorp and her children, Will and Katie, shared their account of living with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, a genetic condition that predisposes them to a wide spectrum of early-onset cancers. Amy has battled cancer four times, while Will is a survivor at age 8.

On another day, the students listened to Dr. James Fahner, who was West Michigan’s first children’s cancer specialist when he arrived 28 years ago.

Other speakers included research nurses, social work and art professors, a pastor, a hospital teacher/school liaison, a pediatric cancer survivor, and a medical director for heart failure and heart transplant.

Wilstermann hopes that equipping students with an understanding of the need for collaboration and the knowledge of cancer’s “many layers” will help them in their future professions.

“But I also hope this helps them as sons, daughters, parents and friends,” she said. “I hope this gives them additional tools to deal with cancer in their lifetimes.”
Wilstermann’s goal is to highlight the value of collaboration and open up the conversation to improve cancer care.

“Cancer is such a complex disease. Caring for patients well takes people with skills in many areas. At Calvin, bringing insights from different disciplines together is something that is valued. This class is an example of a place where we can do that.”

About the Author

Lynn Rosendale is associate director of communications and marketing at Calvin College.