Professors take facts of cancer to schools

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Schoolchildren as young as nine are to be given lessons about lung cancer to dissuade them from taking up smoking.

Scientists will begin going into classrooms next month to give young children information about the disease.

The scientists, from the Cancer Research Campaign, will be working alongside teachers in seven British cities and the studies will form a part of the children's science lessons.

The classes are being aimed at 9- and 10-year-olds because educationalists have advised that many older children will have already started experimenting with cigarettes.

The Cancer Research Campaign will shortly meet with officials from the Department for Education to discuss the extension of the schools programme to the rest of the country next year.

The programme also educates children on the dangers of skin cancer from over-exposure to the sun and informs older schoolgirls of the importance of screening for cervical cancer.

Jean King, the CRC's head of education, said many teachers still found it awkward to talk to children about cancer.

She said: "It's still a bit of a taboo subject in schools even though one in three of us will get it at some point in our lives. Teachers are uncomfortable in case somebody's granny has died from the disease."

In order to overcome such tension, the CRC scientists, who include some of Britain's leading cancer specialists, have agreed to dress in the style of "mad professors", wearing loud kipper ties with their white coats to attract the interest of the children. They will concentrate on dissuading the nine-year-olds from smoking by telling them how cigarettes limit their sporting abilities and make their clothes and breath smell.

The cancer education lessons are based on the Topic of Cancer programme, which was devised by a group of teachers in Barnet, north London, in conjunction with Professor Anne Charlton, an expert in cancer education based at Manchester University.

The programme aims to be non-dictatorial, providing the young children with the facts and leaving them to make their own decisions.

Children are also given advice on how to avoid peer pressure to smoke and to realise that most lumps on the body are not cancers but that it is important to have them seen by a doctor.

Professor Charlton said other lessons taught children important social skills in coping with cancer, including helping friends who became ill with the disease.

She said: "When a child who has had cancer comes back to school he or she can be ostracised because friends think the cancer is infectious or that the person caught the disease for doing things they should not have done."

Each year, 1,500 new cases of cancer are reported in children under the age of 15 in Britain. After heart disease, cancer remains Britain's biggest killer among adults.

Schoolchildren in Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol and Cambridge will be the first to receive the new classes.