Tackling cancer in the classroom


As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, Green School alumna Kate Yglesias Houghton ’06 discusses teaching an undergraduate course with the FIU Honors College called The Cancer Wars, a year-long class that bridges policy, politics, history and solutions along with direct engagement, featuring national thought leaders and an experiential capstone. This piece originally appeared on Medium.com.

By Kate Yglesias Houghton

It was my first day of school (again.) Like always, I was nervous. My grandmother made me breakfast and took my photo in front of the parrot, painted by my grandfather, that has appeared in so many life events. Then I was off, mentally preparing myself during the drive to teach my first class.

During the previous two years my life completely revolved around cancer and Congress — ensuring, for the first time, that young adult cancer patients and survivors received dedicated research funds and spearheading an effort to allow cancer patients to defer their student loans. The victories were sweet but my experience in the cancer advocacy space was both enlightening and heartbreaking. There wasn’t just a single “War on Cancer.” Instead, alongside the war, there were hundreds of battles being waged, all within the community — disease versus disease, pediatrics versus adult, patients versus providers, hospitals versus payers, non-profits versus non-profits.

I shared this new insight about cancer in America with my with my alma mater, Florida International University (FIU). They instantly recognized what my experiences as a patient, politico, and advocate could bring to their students. What started as a conversation about how “all politics are local”, quickly morphed into an undergraduate Honors College course titled: Cancer Wars: The History and Politics Behind America’s Longest & Deadliest Battle.

On the first day of class, Honors College Dean JC Espinosa set the tone and shared his vision: go beyond your discipline and get to know all the decision makers, learn how change actually occurs in our country. Then it was my turn. With butterflies in my stomach, I quickly introduced myself before asking each student to share their majors and what they hoped to learn from this course. About half the class had an immediate family member impacted by cancer. The other half was curious as to why cancer — compared to other diseases like diabetes — received so much attention and public funding.

But, to our surprise, not a single student was majoring in political science. They were all pre-med. We quickly realized that our course presented a unique opportunity to transform patient care at the beginning of a provider’s career — before board exams, before 72 hour shifts, before ever stepping foot into a patient’s room.

The Cancer Wars is not a biology class and it is not a political science course. It is class about complex problem solving. We work on empathizing and connecting with different perspectives to better understand how converging perspectives become policy. There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” in this class. Instead, we look at how policymakers — like physicians — must make tough choices in the midst of competing agendas. We study these decisions without bias, assumption, or motivated reasoning. It is a safe space to tackle questions such as “Is health care a right?” and “How do we heal in a capitalist economy?”

Students are also required to read one patient memoir each semester — something I have found is not required for pre-med track students. As Senator Elizabeth Dole once said, “The best public policy is made when you are listening to the people who are going to be impacted.” I use these memoirs as a tool to open their mind and provide a better understanding about the patient, survivor, and caregiver experience. Last semester, many of my students read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Like them, Kalanithi started out wanting to be a doctor only to find himself on the other side of a hospital bed. Their reports were filled with tears but more importantly, a new perspective, one they will take with them into medical school and a profession serving others.

My students have also been able to learn from some of the best in the cancer advocacy space. Incredible leaders like Sam Watson, a two-time young adult cancer survivor who has dispersed more than $2 million in grants to young adults on the brink of bankruptcy after a cancer diagnosis, and Lisa Simms Booth of the Biden Cancer Initiative, a woman who inspires me every day to challenge the status quo and advocate in new and bold ways.

The politics of cancer are as complex, opaque, and confounding as the disease itself. But we must remind ourselves that cancer doesn’t have ambition; it doesn’t have a profession, a political party, or a profit margin. It only has one goal: to divide. The opportunity to teach future medical professionals as undergraduates about how the politics and policies of government and oncology can impact patient care is one innovative way we can unite patients, providers, and policymakers. I applaud FIU’s leadership and hope more teaching institutions will lay the groundwork for exploring and valuing the many unique viewpoints in the War on Cancer.