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Scott Culbertson Sutter Solano Cancer Center

Radiation therapist Scott Culbertson discusses the Sutter Solano Cancer Center's CAT Scan machine to students from American Canyon High School. 

A lesson in cellular biology at American Canyon High School has also been a life lesson in human empathy and learning to help those diagnosed with cancer.

Students last Thursday delivered care packages to the Sutter Solano Cancer Center in Vallejo, where they received a guided tour of the facility and briefs lectures on the medical treatments used to cure patients.

The donations and tour were part of a months-long project at ACHS to teach teenagers about human cells by incorporating more than just classroom instruction.

“It’s a real world representation of what they’re learning,” said biology teacher Brian Ginnever from the cancer center’s lobby. “We use cancer to introduce cellular biology.”

His colleague, biology instructor Christy Vough, said teaching students about cancer demonstrates how “cell division goes wrong.”

‘They’re learning how the cell divides normally, and how it is disrupted in cancer,” said Vough.

The lesson is similar to other project-based learning (PBL) at the high school, with teachers employing guest speakers and activities outside of school to get students engaged with the subject.

Vough invited a friend of hers who survived breast cancer to come into her classroom and speak about her experience.

“That’s a powerful moment,” she said, because the students see “a real person” telling their story. It gives them the opportunity to make a connection that “it’s real” and not just an abstract biology lesson.

“Our driving question for the project is: How can we help people that have cancer,” said Vough, who spent 15 years working as a paramedic and EMT before becoming a teacher.

In addition to classroom lessons on cell mitosis and related subjects, students raised money off campus by selling homemade cupcakes so they could purchase items for cancer patients.

The care packages included everything from water bottles to blankets to journals, according to Karen Stillwell, a nurse navigator who greets and assists many of the cancer patients at Sutter Solano.

“A mastectomy can be a very emotional thing for a woman to undergo, to deal with grief and loss,” said Stillwell from her office while going through the contents of the care packages dropped off by students.

“Journaling is a very effective method for writing down your feelings,” she added. “It can be the first step with acknowledging and coping with some of those emotions that are happening.”

“It’s a simple thing [the care packages], and it’s also a message that somebody cares,” Stillwell said. “It’s that compassionate stranger thing that people appreciate.”

For some students the project on cells and cancer resonated on a deeper level because they have had relatives diagnosed with the disease.

“Most of them know someone who had cancer or has cancer,” said Vough. “So they have that personal connection.” The project “helps explain to them what might be going on with their loved one with how cancer develops, how it grows, [and] about the treatments. It increases their knowledge about something they’re personally experiencing.”

For sophomore Anjalina Valenzuela, the project gave her the chance to help those like her grandfather, who was diagnosed with skin cancer and died this past year.

“I thought it would be good to be involved in this and help donate to those who have cancer and are still alive,” said Valenzuela. “I do love helping people.”

During the guided tour of the cancer center, Valenzuela got to learn about a linear accelerator, which is used to treat patients with targeted radiation. She also got the opportunity to operate the mammoth machine that’s as large as a truck, and even heavier.

“It made me think this might be something I want to do when I’m older,” she said of being a radiation therapist like Scott Culbertson, who instructed Valenzuela and others on the cancer center’s equipment.

Culbertson explained to them that with the linear accelerator, “You can calculate beams [of radiation] and save people’s lives.”

This is the third year of the PBL lesson on cellular biology. Ginnever said it “makes for a nice wholesome project for them to do,” and “it gets better every year” based on the growing level of student engagement.

“Every year we build empathy” among the students, he said.

Some have even taken a greater interest in the science behind cancer treatment, according to Vough.

One of her former biology students told her he wanted to study gene mutation and become a geneticist someday.

Stillwell was glad to hear this news, saying, “There’s so much in genetics that it’s going to unlock the keys to cancer treatment.”

The fact that the project is turning kids onto science and medicine is precisely why the cancer center was willing to invite the students in and show them what goes on at this wing of Sutter Solano.

“I’m seeing they’re interested in health care,” said Stillwell. “We want to support kids who want to find meaningful work and who want to find their place, whatever their gifts are, whatever their talents are. We want them to apply that and help other people in the community.”