In a recent class at Calvin, 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.

“It certainly is something that has touched all of them,” said Wilstermann. “All of them had parents, grandparents or friends that had been affected.”

A pervasive disease

Its 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?”

“The biggest thing I have learned is that cancer is really a lifelong battle”Ezmeralda Gonzalez

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, though many who enroll in the course are interested in the health care profession.

Such is the case for first-year student Ezmeralda Gonzalez, who is pursuing a career in nursing. “I learned that cancer is not just biology,” she said. “Cancer affects you socially, financially, spiritually, in so many ways. Treating patients is a lot more than people would expect.

“The biggest thing I have learned is that cancer is really a lifelong battle. You don’t get this disease, and you cure it and it’s gone. You have to worry about getting it again, and you may have lifelong challenges from the treatment.”

Genuine stories

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.

“I feared reoccurrence after the first time,” Colthorp told the class. “I fear it less now. I just can’t live my life worrying about it. I have hope that the right thing is going to happen.”

The family has regular MRIs and blood tests that scan for cancer.

“A cancer diagnosis can change your life in a second,” she said, “but whatever a test shows, tomorrow we’re going to wake up and deal with it.”

Will endured a surgery and nine months of chemotherapy with numerous side effects.

“In the end, it didn’t turn out that bad for me,” said Will, with a smile.

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.

Said Fahner: “I have the privilege of meeting the bravest and most extraordinary children at the worst possible time of their lives.”

Fahner, who serves as division chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, spoke to students about the community of providers who support each child facing this disease.

Information about cancer statistics.

Complex and personal

The class was eye-opening for first-year nursing student Kayla Spicer. “l learned how much I didn’t know about cancer,” she said. “I never knew how complex it is and how personal it is for everyone.”

“Hearing firsthand about these people's lives gave a very real-life feel to the class.”Hyeryeoung "Joy" Choi

The class speakers impressed Hyeryeong “Joy” Choi, a first-year pre-med student: “Hearing firsthand about these people’s lives gave a very real-life feel to the class.”

Wilstermann said despite its prevalence, cancer remains something that society doesn’t deal with well. “People don’t even really know how to talk about it; in some cultures, it’s taboo to talk about.”

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.”

Sarah Catlin, a first-year student interested in pursuing cancer research, said that she “gained a lot of knowledge about cancer.” But more importantly, she was moved by the speakers who are “so passionate about cancer and their faith.”

In addition to Fahner and Colthorp, other speakers included research nurses Julie Steinbrecher and Teri Crumb, Calvin social work professor Stacia Hoeksema, Calvin art professor Anna Greidanus, Pastor Joy Bonnema, hospital teacher/school liaison Sarah Smith, pediatric cancer survivor Judy Bode, and Dr. Michael Dickinson, a medical director for heart failure and heart transplant.

“It was inspiring to me and made me very empathetic towards each of their stories,” Catlin said.

Working for a future

Colthorp is grateful for the opportunity to speak to future researchers and physicians. “You are really important to my family and my children,” she said. “It’s amazing what all of you will be able to do in the future.”

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.”

Gonzalez agreed: “This class is not just information. It’s about a person with a story. Everyone should take this class because you know someone with cancer and you can help educate them about it and become part of their story.”

Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark.