The Science of Cancer

The Science of Cancer Photo Credit: CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cancers are a group of diseases in which abnormal cells uncontrollably develop and spread in the body. More than 100 different types of cancer affect humans. Internationally, it is the second leading cause of death, accounting for one in every seven deaths worldwide.

Cancers develop as a result of outside forces—exposure to radiation or toxins in the environment (including tobacco and alcohol), poor diet, insufficient exercise, and infections—or internal factors—genetic makeup, immune deficiencies, and hormonal changes—or a combination of more than one factor. A third of all cancer deaths worldwide stem from modifiable or preventable risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, and infections.

Not that long ago, a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. Over the last two centuries, though, scientists have worked hard to understand how cancer forms, how it can be prevented, and how to treat it. Today, with many types of cancer, the prognosis for those who receive early treatment is positive, with 14 million cancer survivors living in the United States alone.

Research continues into all aspects of cancer and includes a broad swath of sciences, including mathematics, immunology, nanotechnology, epigenetics, engineering, and biotechnology.

Most students will recognize the term cancer from outside the classroom. Science NetLinks hopes these resources relating to the science of cancer will help answer questions they might have, offer them insights into how a cancer diagnosis has changed in recent years, and interest them in an area of scientific study that will continue to expand into the future.

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  • Skin: The Behavior and Health Connection

    Skin: The Behavior and Health Connection

    In this lesson, students become better aware of how their personal behavior and the environment can have a considerable impact on their health in general, particularly the health of their skin.
  • Cancer Risks

    Cancer Risks

    In this lesson students examine environmental and hereditary factors that increase the chance of developing cancer.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    In this lesson, students explore the issue of ethics in medical research and, in particular, the issue of informed consent, in the context of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells.
  • Sun & Skin

    Sun & Skin

    9-12  |  Interactive
    In this lesson, students will discuss what they already know about the impact sun exposure has on their skin and what they typically do to protect themselves, if anything.
  • Sunburn, Sunscreen, and Cancer

    Sunburn, Sunscreen, and Cancer

    In this lesson, students explore the link between exposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation and the chance of getting a sunburn.
  • Who Gets Sick?

    Who Gets Sick?

    In this lesson, students learn that disease is influenced by genetic factors. They also learn one’s likelihood of inheriting the genes for a particular disease is linked to ancestral makeup—to the particular branches of the human family tree from which one descends.


  • Not an Old Person's Disease

    Not an Old Person's Disease

    9-12  |  Website
    This resource introduces students to the genetic basis of cancer development through a case study.
  • Peering Inside the Body

    Peering Inside the Body

    6-12  |  Interactive
    This site describes the sophisticated tools and techniques used in medical imaging including the PET scan, X ray, angiography, ultrasound, and CT Scan.
  • SCI: Skin Cancer Investigation

    SCI: Skin Cancer Investigation

    6-12  |  Interactive
    This interactive gives students the opportunity to learn about skin cancer diagnosis and prevention.
  • Your Health: The Science Inside

    Your Health: The Science Inside

    6-12  |  Website
    This booklet, from the Science Inside series, explores biomedical research and how far health and scientific research has come in the last 150 years.

Science Updates

  • Astronaut Health Risks

    Astronaut Health Risks

    6-12  |  Audio
    Astronauts on long-term space missions may face health risks that their predecessors didn't have to worry about. These Science Update reports describe two of them.
  • Cancer & Diabetes Resistance

    Cancer & Diabetes Resistance

    6-12  |  Audio
    A rare genetic mutation makes people very short, but also resistant to cancer and diabetes.
  • Cancer-Sniffing Dogs

    Cancer-Sniffing Dogs

    6-12  |  Audio
    Dogs are often used to sniff out everything from illegal drugs to explosives. But new research shows that they can also smell cancer.
  • Cell Phone Medicine Update

    Cell Phone Medicine Update

    6-12  |  Audio
    Using mobile phones for medical purposes, a new frontier when we reported on it in 2008, has become a huge field.
  • Cells in Reverse

    Cells in Reverse

    6-12  |  Audio
    Even all the plastic surgeons in Hollywood can’t turn back the hands of time. But scientists recently found a way to rewind a seemingly irreversible biological process.
  • Diagnostic Microchip

    Diagnostic Microchip

    6-12  |  Audio
    Many diseases don't develop noticeable symptoms until they've already done considerable damage. That's why doctors would like to get a closer look at the first signs of disease: tiny changes in the way our cells communicate with each other. In this Science Update, you’ll hear about an innovative plan to get closer to those early distress signals.
  • Immune System Passports

    Immune System Passports

    6-12  |  Audio
    Researchers have successfully copied a molecule that protects our bodies from our own immune systems.
  • Night Lights

    Night Lights

    6-12  |  Audio
    In this Science Update, hear why bright nighttime lights could also be bad for women's health.
  • Proteome


    6-12  |  Audio
    In this Science Update, you’ll hear about a group that’s working to unravel the mystery of how human genes generate such a large number of proteins.
  • Sniffing Out Cancer

    Sniffing Out Cancer

    6-12  |  Audio
    A previous Science Update examined how dogs can detect cancer with their noses. Now those dogs have inspired new technology that tests for skin cancer based on odorants given off by the skin.
  • Tissue Regeneration

    Tissue Regeneration

    6-12  |  Audio
    In this Science Update, hear how newts have inspired a new technique for regenerating mammalian tissue.
  • Urban Greening

    Urban Greening

    6-12  |  Audio
    Strategically placed grass, ivy, and other greenery can significantly improve air quality in urban centers.
  • UV Addiction

    UV Addiction

    6-12  |  Audio
    UV light may have a drug-like effect, leading to addiction and even withdrawal symptoms.
  • 3D Tissue

    3D Tissue

    6-12  |  Audio
    3D scaffolding in cells helps scientists understand a patient’s cancer cells and personalize treatments.


  • Exercise and Nutrition

    Exercise and Nutrition

    This collection has resources to help teach your students about various aspects of obesity, healthy eating, and exercise.
  • Health Literacy

    Health Literacy

    Science NetLinks and AAAS have developed a number of resources that will help you teach your students about health, medicine, and healthy living.


  • Nanomaterials

    9-12  |  Video
    In this segment of Material Marvels, Dr. Ainissa Ramirez demonstrates how materials behave strangely when they are nanosize—about 1/100,000 the thickness of your hair.
  • Top Ten Breakthroughs of 2013

    6-12  |  Video
    Watch a video of Science Magazine's 2013 scientific Breakthrough of the Year & the nine runners-up, ranging from transparent brains to exploding stars.

AAAS Resources

Reading Cancer: Books that Connect the Science and Emotion of Cancer
Grade Band: 9-12
Description: A selection of books about cancer that everyone should read suggested by SB&F Editor-in-Chief Maria Sosa.

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