Embedding the patient perspective in understanding cancer

A new subject teaching the basics of cancer is connecting students and people with experience of cancer (cancer consumers) to enhance learning and establish important rapport at the earliest stage of medical training.

The Discover Cancer subject has run for the first time in 2022, as a foundational subject in the new University of Melbourne Doctor of Medicine MD Discovery program.

The subject was developed by the Departments of Clinical Pathology and Medical Education in collaboration with the VCCC Alliance and builds on the Master of Cancer Sciences. It explores the fundamentals of cancer sciences through a clinical approach, covering the theory of disease mechanisms and development of cancer, illustrated through patient scenarios including treatment and pathology.

Dr Joep Vissers, the coordinator of the subject, said that ‘Hallmarks of Cancer and the patient journey’ Q&A session aimed to highlight the core concepts of the course through an individual patient journey, told first-hand.

“We know that it is very important that patients and clinicians form good relationships and communication, so this session is a way to raise awareness of the patients’ side in this relationship.”

“The theory we are learning is fairly abstract, so it is really important to bring that back to what it really means for a person when they have the disease – how it affects their treatment plan and how you manage the patient.”

Dr Keely Bumsted O’Brien provided her perspective of diagnosis and treatment for triple negative breast cancer, and said the students were appreciative to hear her story.

“The students were actively listening to what I was saying, asked quite insightful questions, and occasionally they were a little surprised – they hadn’t thought about diagnosis or treatment from a patient perspective.”

Margery Zhang, a student in the course, said that she had never had the chance to talk to a patient diagnosed with cancer.

“Something that really stuck with me is the patients overall journey; I learnt about the process from diagnosis through to treatment, and how much of an impact it can have on someone’s whole life, way beyond even successful treatment.”

“As med students it is really good to look at things from the patient perspective to see how we can make change and positively impact someone who has cancer.”

Jo Russel, a lecturer on the subject, said that the team were hoping that the session would develop further motivation for the students, about why they are learning what they are learning.

“I was so impressed with how engaged the students were. It was really nice seeing future doctors in training really just listen to the patient and show curiosity about her experience.”

“Keely [the patient] described the shock that took over when she heard her diagnosis, and how she couldn’t process any of it at the time, and I believe it really struck the students, that it can stop you in your tracks so heavily that your brain doesn’t function as it normally would – an important insight for medical professionals to remember.”

Ryan Munnings, a student in the course, said that it is easy to step back and feel that you have no understanding of the real-world application of what you are learning, but that the session provided vital insight to the reality of a cancer diagnosis.

“Without seeing the impact on patients, which is really what being a doctor is all about, you haven’t got the full picture; we aren’t generally exposed to diagnosis or treatments, which I find really interesting and is part of why I chose this subject in the first place.”

Dr Bumsted O’Brien said “It is important to teach students early, to normalise these discussions and let them talk to cancer survivors and consumers to understand what a person is going through, outside of the clinical setting where there are more constraints on what questions they could ask.”

“They can think about the whole person and what they might be going through, and that just in and of itself just lends itself to empathy and compassion.”