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The Big C: Cancer, biology, and beyond

Biology professor Renee Chosed knows what it’s like to lose a friend to cancer. As a post-doctoral researcher at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston), Chosed and her colleagues worked with a lab manager who was diagnosed with breast cancer. The team, which was studying leukemia at the time, supported their friend throughout her two-year fight with the disease—and not only with mere words. “Twice during her treatment we participated in Race for the Cure with her, and she absolutely loved it. About two years after her diagnosis and treatment, a PET scan revealed she had developed bone cancer—she died maybe three months after that.”

The irony isn’t lost on Chosed. “She spent her whole life researching cancer and was treated at MD Anderson by the best doctors, in the best cancer research hospital in the world, but she still lost the battle . . . there are some things you just can’t control,” says Chosed.

A scant few of us can say we haven’t been touched by cancer in some way. Which is part of the motivation behind Chosed’s first year seminar, The Big C: Cancer, Biology and Beyond. “On the first day, we went around the room and talked about how cancer has affected our lives. Every single person had a story—a relative, a friend, a friend of a friend—even one of my students was a survivor,” recalls Chosed.

Fourteen freshmen, mostly pre-health majors, opted to take the class which was jammed with community service (Race for the Cure), four guest speakers (two of those cancer survivors), a hospital tour, lab experiments, projects, movie clips, and episodes of the course’s namesake, The Big C (Showtime).

The cornerstone event for the class was Race for the Cure. The entire class participated in the benefit, and, counting family members and friends who showed up for the race over family weekend, the Furman contingent numbered more than fifty supporters. In the weeks prior to the race, the class sold purple “Team Furman” t-shirts, raising over $500 for Race for the Cure.

Racing and raising money for the cure aside, the classroom experience was no less lively. In a setting reminiscent of a House episode, students gathered around a conference room table to wrestle with cancer on biological, psychological, religious, and social fronts. Biology major Will Lorenz, who as a young boy lost his sister to cancer, says the seminar reshaped his thinking about the disease. “Some of the smartest scientists and doctors working on this disease night and day . . . but we still don’t fully understand all the aspects of it. That’s why I love learning about it . . . it’s a powerful disease that challenges science and medicine to continually get better.”

Chemistry and Chinese double major Karlee Wroblewski especially enjoyed the group dynamics of the seminar. “We were all very engaged and willing to respond to discussion prompts and argue complex topics for the full class period—our conversations a lot of times spilled into the hallway as we walked to our next class.” Wroblewski says some of her truest friends have come from the class, not to mention the strong student/professor bond forged between her and Chosed. “We have scheduled a coffee reunion, and I’m looking forward to getting together with the first group of people who made me so excited to be at college and so proud to call Furman home,” she says.

After examining all aspects of cancer from a scientific and genetic perspective to social and religious issues, Chosed says the outcome was pretty dramatic. “As the class progressed, I could see the shift in assumptions and opinions about the disease.” For example, Chosed says at the start of class, many students didn’t realize the genetic basis for cancer; many thought the disease was random.

Perhaps the most significant product of the seminar? “Students learned to be more open-minded, aware and tolerant of others’ views,” says Chosed. “I was really happy to see that.”

Last updated February 17, 2016
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director