LESSON 1: What Is Cancer?

Objective: Students will develop empathy and vocabulary through narrative writing that incorporates background information about cancer.

Time Required: One 40-minute class period

Materials: Worksheet 1, Internet access


1. Distribute Student Worksheet 1: What Is Cancer? to students. Give the following example: Imagine you are at an amusement park with your friends. Everyone wants to ride a rollercoaster or ferris wheel. You were excited to ride and now you are not sure if you want to get on the ride. Maybe you start to feel nervous, unwell, or worried about it. Use the following questions to help students brainstorm:

  • What is a sudden change have you experienced at home, at school, or in an activity?
  • What did you do in this situation?
  • How did the experience make you feel?
  • How did other people react?
Ask students to write about their experiences. Remind them to show, not tell, how they felt. Use the chart on Student Worksheet 1 to brainstorm “showing” details. Discuss an example from your own life, if possible, to model this process, or draw on another real-life story. After students write their narratives, invite them to share their stories with the class.

2. Tell students that today they will be talking about a particular type of sickness called cancer. Explain to students that cancer is a group of more than 100 diseases that attack parts of people’s bodies. Assure students that you can’t catch cancer from someone who has the disease. Cancer makes people very sick, but it can be treated with medicine. People who have cancer can still live normal lives.

3. Inform students that there are certain words that are often used when talking about cancer, and it’s important to understand what these words mean. Use a concept web to show the relationships between the bold words defined in Step 5. (Cancer would be at the center of the web. Lines would lead from cancer to diagnosis and treatment. Lines would lead from treatment to the three types of treatment: chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery .)

4. Explain to students that when someone is given the diagnosis (identifying a disease by its signs or symptoms) of cancer, a doctor will try to get rid of the cancer in the person’s body. Three common treatments for cancer are chemotherapy (a method that helps kill cancer cells by a doctor’s use of drugs or a combination of drugs), radiation (a method that helps kill cancer cells by using high-energy rays), and surgery (an operation performed in a hospital to remove cancer).

5. Tell students that different types of cancer need different types of treatment (a method by which a doctor will help you to continue to live “normally” with cancer). A person may receive only one or two types of treatment, or all three. Each person is different, so it is important that cancer patients work with their doctors to find the treatment that is right for them.

6. To help reinforce the lesson vocabulary, instruct students to complete Part 2 of the worksheet. It may be helpful to write an example sentence as a class (e.g., A person might go to the hospital for surgery to remove cancer). Review the answers as a class and clarify any misunderstandings.

Extension Activity: As a class, read an excerpt from a book about someone diagnosed with cancer. Then guide students to reflect and discuss:

  • How is this person’s experience similar to or different from the experience you wrote about?
  • How does the person feel about the experience? What words or techniques are used to show this feeling?

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