Genealogy in a cancer prevention curriculum for high school students

A team of researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University are using an old tool to teach new information about cancer: the family tree.

“A Bridge to Better Health” is the first program to incorporate genealogy in a cancer prevention curriculum for high school students. In six weeks, students learn how to gather family health histories, among other activities, and early results show that the program’s impact is dramatic.

“We have cracked the code to providing the right mix of motivation and information for teens to reduce their cancer risk,” said Steven J. Danish, Ph.D., principal investigator for the study and director of the VCU Life Skills Center. “The differences in behaviors of students who have taken the program are quite striking compared to those who haven’t.”

Researchers from VCU’s Life Skills Center and the VCU Massey Cancer Center designed the program, with funding from the National Cancer Institute. In addition to teaching genealogy, the program provides instruction on breast and testicular self exams, reducing fat intake, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, using sunscreen, setting health goals, and developing plans and commitments to achieve goals.

Researchers conducted a pilot program with 173 students in rural Matthews County, Va., and an expanded program is now under way in suburban Richmond with 500 students.

Elizabeth Fries, associate professor of psychology and co-leader of the cancer control program at VCU Massey Cancer Center, says A Bridge to Better Health is one of many tools in Massey’s research arsenal to combat cancer. “Our research labs are full of potentially exciting discoveries, but we still must teach future generations how to reduce their risk for cancer.”

A tip sheet for gathering family health history is available at http://www.vcu.edu/uns/Releases/2004/dec/121604a.html.

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