When Biology Becomes Personal

medical_symbol_2I have been teaching biology at one level of academia or another for over 25 years. It is a passion for me. I have taken on the role of missionary and zealot and even proselytizer — spreading the word far and wide on how to view the world through a biologist’s eyes and how to teach biology better.

But the study of biology was taken to a whole new level for me this year; it got downright personal. In December, my digestive system started to disagree with me daily and I thought I was battling run-of-the-mill midlife gastric problems (acid reflux, etc.), but I was quite unexpectedly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

There is nothing to grab a biology teacher’s attention more than an attack from within. And I find there are two people in my life living this crisis — the woman who is fighting for her life and the biologist who is watching what a body does when parts of it falter. I have never looked at the human body so mechanistically before. We are a finely-tuned machine with little tolerance for failure in any of its parts. Constrict a bile duct and watch your skin turn yellow from the backed up waste products of your liver. During radiation treatments my hemoglobin count plummeted and I was reduced to a tired, wheezing old woman who couldn’t walk up the school stairs without pausing every few steps, legs aching. But a transfusion of whole blood rejuvenated me overnight like they had changed the oil and tuned me up. Amazing what a little more oxygen will do for this machine! And natural selection takes on a whole new meaning once you contemplate a personal internal battle between your working cells and your cancer cells and you hope your selfless, cooperative, follow-the-rules cells win the competition.

After taking care of my immediate health needs and the emotional needs of my own teenage children, I realized my biggest challenge was how to tell my students. I struggled with this. My administration didn’t want me to and came up with every argument they could: it is a private matter, it will be too upsetting to the students, we would have to alert parents first, and then finally suggesting that I explain it without using the word “cancer” to which I could only reply, “Doh!”. If I didn’t personally explain this to my students what would clarify my frequent absences, my loss of hair, my increasing weakness. It was obvious to me, we (my students and I) had to tackle this together as we did the challenge of our coursework. After that it came easy.

For my AP class, I interrupted the current lesson and started a brief chat with, “OK, you know that I have been sick. I’m going to tell you what is up. We are only going to talk about this for a couple of minutes because we have work to do, and I get tired of talking about it all the time anyway…” After I finished I gave my students an opportunity to ask questions. After one student asked if this runs in my family and I told them about a genetic study I joined to investigate that, another student spoke up about how she was going through genetic testing because so many women in her family had breast cancer. This prompted another student to talk about the recent diagnosis of his grandfather. It really was a moment. A couple of weeks later another student from class came to me privately to tell me his own story of battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a child and to assure me that there was always hope. I was honored that he shared such a moment with me‚Ķ I was moved to tears by his generosity.

For my 10th grade class, I found a teaching moment to segue smoothly into the discussion. At the end of the mitosis lecture after I explained how cancer was mitosis gone awry, I was able to turn to the class and say “And this is a battle I am fighting now…” and then talked about the treatments I was undergoing.

I have found that this matter-of-fact approach has allowed many students to feel comfortable enough to come to me and talk about how cancer is touching their lives now. I am startled at how many there are!

So now, I am fighting the fight… dancing with Patrick Swayze… reserving judgment with Ruth Bader Ginsburg… and hoping beyond hope that I am not ready to join the teaching ranks with Randy Pausch. I can do nothing else but use the personal lessons of my life as teaching moments for my students.

September 2009 update: After getting a good response from chemo and radiation treatments, in late July 2009, I underwent a Whipple procedure at Sloan Kettering (NYC) to battle my pancreatic cancer. I think it may be interesting to biologists to see how they re-do the plumbing in your digestive tract during such a procedure. If you think so, please check this resource at the Mayo Clinic. I have spent the last two months recovering from this daunting surgery and my body is still trying to figure out how digestions works with this new geography. I started work full-time along with the rest of my faculty in September and will be undergoing chemo through the Fall as a preventative against this usually persistent cancer. So right now, I count my self amongst the lucky 15% that survives pancreatic cancer and look forward to the opportunity of discussing my Whipple experience with my students when we learn about the digestive system!

Kim Foglia

Kim Foglia