How much do elementary schoolchildren know and understand about cancer? Researchers at the Yale Cancer Center have launched a project to find out.
The project, which is funded by a $50,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, is being led by Dr. David J. Schonfeld, associate professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine and the Yale Child Study Center.
"We're trying to get basic information about what kids know about cancer," says Dr. Schonfeld. "Only then can we identify misconceptions, evaluate existing curricula and determine if educational efforts are on target." Dr. Schonfeld, who recently completed a similar study of children's understanding of AIDS, said he is not aware of any comparable research to date on children's developmental understanding of cancer.
Many of the behaviors that place adults at risk of acquiring cancer -- such as smoking, unprotected sun exposure or poor nutrition -- are adopted during childhood or early adolescence, notes Dr. Schonfeld. Effective cancer prevention measures, therefore, must begin at an early age, he says. "But how do we know what works, if we don't know what they know?" asks the researcher. "We don't know what they think cancer is. We need to find out what factual information -- and what misinformation -- kids have about cancer first."
To get the answers to that question, the researchers held individual interviews with a racially diverse group of 800 New Haven Public School students. These interviews included open-ended questions about the cause, transmission, treatment, prevention, outcome and symptoms of cancer.
After analyzing the data, the researchers will review the cancer prevention curricula in Connecticut schools to see if the material addresses identified misconceptions, if the material is taught at age- appropriate levels and if any important information is missing. Eventually they will make recommendations for improving those educational materials.