A Civil Action - The Woburn Toxic Trial > Instructor Materials > Module 2 - Cancer > Activity Page: Module 1 - Cancer

Activity Page: Module 1 - Cancer

Kevin Svitana and Scott Bair, The Ohio State University
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Students investigate information on the types of cancers and become familiar with causes, susceptible populations, symptoms, and treatments. Students should be familiar with the multiple types of leukemia that were prevalent in Woburn and their possible causes. Not all of the plaintiffs' children had the same type of leukemia and not all the plaintiffs were children (e.g. Pete Gamache).

Learning Goals

To understand the complex cause/effect and statistical relations between cancer, environment, and receptors and how scientists evaluate their research in terms of causality versus a statistically positive or negative association. Students need to appreciate how scientists and statisticians use the scientific method to reach a common goal but with different means of testing. Students participating in a mock trial will have to understand the scientific reasoning process and be able to convey their understanding to their audience during the mock trial.

Context for Use

Module 2 can stand alone or be part of a series of module leading to a mock trial. Use of Module 2 depends on the format of course in which it is used. If the instructor's goal is to culminate in a mock trial that is not intended to be a reenactment of the original Woburn Toxic Trial, then Module 2 requires considerable attention. One of the problems that would have been encountered in the original trial, had the trial gone on to the second phase, would be establishing a causal or statistical connection between the ingested contaminated water and the specific types of leukemia. Information presented Module 2 and in segments of the book and movie covering the deposition of plaintiffs show the defense strategy regarding the difficulty with connecting cancers and their causes. If the instructor's goal is performing an all-encompassing mock trial, having students understand current difficulties related to cancers and environmental causes will be key to the trial.

In context of performing a mock trial at the end of the semester or quarter, Module 2 is intended to be presented in one or two lectures. The purpose of the lectures would be providing students general knowledge regarding cancer, environmental conditions associated with specific cancers, treatment strategies and improvements in cancer treatment prior to the Woburn trial and advances made after the trial (post 1986).

If Module 2 is used by itself, as a stand alone module, it may be beneficial to incorporate the emotional aspects of cancer and its treatment for on the victims, their families, and friends, as well as the financial impact of cancer treatment. This is actually a very relevant point of discussion as Republicans and Democrats argue about what type of health care can be provided to citizens of the United States. Module 2 also could be used to integrate GIS exercises and identify statistically valid clusters using the guidelines presented by the Center for Disease Control.

In my (Scott) class, the students and I visit a local hospital to talk with an oncology nurse and doctor, and to see some of the equipment used in the treatment of cancer. The nurse talks about treatment and the doctor talks about detection and blood chemistry. The students develop an appreciation for the technology associated with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer as well as the need for support from friends and hospices.

Description and Teaching Materials

Teaching materials range from Internet websites to GIS databases. Students can get detailed information regarding the history and state-of-the-art of cancer diagnosis and treatment from websites such as those hosted by the American Cancer Society and The Center for Disease Control (links provided). This website provides information regarding the identification of clusters, and a Google Earth map showing the locations of the cancer victims is included in the Resources for Educators page.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Perhaps the first hurdle with teaching a module on cancer is having the students become comfortable with the topic. As an instructor, it will be up to you to determine the depth to which you cover this subject and the amount of time necessary to address all the potential cancer issues. You can treat it as a scientific problem showing photomicrographs and other medical images and/or as a personal problem that most families will have to endure. If your students curious, it may be best to extend the time you spend on this topic to accommodate the students interest. I (Scott) relied heavily on the presentations by the oncology nurse and the medical doctor to convey a first-hand, helping hand view of the disease, its diagnosis and treatment.


Assessment can include structured testing related to information pertaining to specific cancers, treatment options and history is related to cancer research. Assessment also could include group discussions regarding topics of handling long term cancer treatment, funding for research or issues like medical insurance guarantees for cancer treatment. This form of open discussion will likely allow students to see the diversity of opinion regarding this sickness.

References and Resources

Resources that can be as instruction aides are included in Module 2, in the Resource Collections webpage, and in the sections of the website dealing with cancel. The searchable database with the Bibliography & References webpage (see References Collection) also can be used.

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