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    An undergraduate course.

Understanding cancers

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This 15-week course provides a scientific introduction to cancers – a complex group of diseases that present a major global health problem. You’ll study basic properties of cells and how they divide, how tumours are formed and spread, risk factors, and prevention of cancers in a global context. The course text, case studies and multimedia illustrate the symptoms and pathology of various cancers, their diagnosis and medical, surgical and lifestyle management, including palliative care. The course will appeal if you have direct experience of cancer as a patient, family, friend, carer or health care worker, or just have a general interest in the subject.

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No current presentation - see Future availability

This course is expected to start for the last time in January 2014.

What you will study

The course starts with an introduction to cancers on a global level, providing data on their incidence worldwide. You will then study the basic biology of cancers and the genetic factors that influence their formation, progression and spread to other parts of the body. The course text, case studies and multimedia will guide you through the risk factors associated with various cancers, through diagnostic tests including imaging methods and some screening techniques, and through the various therapeutic approaches currently available, including surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and biological therapies, as well as palliative care treatments for terminally-ill individuals. You will then learn about certain practical aspects and psychological adjustments that a person living with cancer has to consider in the context of diagnosis, treatment, prognosis and day-to-day living. The course finishes by briefly outlining the most promising medical approaches in dealing with cancers that may become available in the future.

The course will:

  • introduce the worldwide distribution of cancers and give a brief overview of the major trends and variations in their prevalence and global impact
  • describe the cell and molecular biology underlying the formation of cancers
  • explain how cancers progress and spread through the body
  • outline the ways in which multiple risk factors contribute to disease onset and how genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors combine in the generation of cancers, and how these suggest strategies for cancer prevention
  • consider means of preventing cancers
  • describe the different methods available for cancer screening and the advantages and disadvantages of their use
  • explain the diagnostic tests and imaging methods used to diagnose cancer
  • examine the various therapeutic approaches available, including surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and biological therapy
  • discuss the choices available to people with cancer with regards to their treatment
  • outline the palliative treatments available and the rationale for their use
  • explain the issues related to living with cancer, management of side effects and symptoms, and the psychological impact of cancer diagnosis, treatment and return to normal life
  • offer an outlook on future directions in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

The course integrates multimedia and text to show how cancers develop and progress. Video sequences on DVD look at the various treatment options, instrumentation and therapies available, whereas case studies of different people suffering from various cancers, throughout the course, are used to convey the experience of the individual patient. These clinical case studies are used to link the medical aspects of cancer care to the underlying science and offer a more personal view of the cancer experience.


Please note: this course is only available for standalone study. You cannot count the credits you gain from the course towards any current OU qualification. It may be possible, however, to count the credits gained towards a qualification if you are already studying with us and have declared your qualification intention before September 2012 – see your qualification description in StudentHome for details.

This is a Level 1 course. Level 1 courses provide the core subject knowledge and study skills needed for both higher education and distance learning, to help you to progress to courses at Level 2.

You are not expected to have any knowledge of cancers, but you should be able to read and understand written English of a style and complexity characteristic of a professional magazine or quality newspaper. If you have not studied up to GCSE level fairly recently, you should expect to spend longer on the study materials.

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the course, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The package Are you ready for science study? offers an interactive quiz to help you decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the course or whether you should consider first studying an Openings course.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the course, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.

Outside the UK

The course focuses on the person with cancer in the context of the UK National Health Service and includes, where necessary, references to the treatment plans and diagnostic tests used in the UK. Although the provision of services for cancer treatment and education is likely to differ outside the UK, the course makes references to global issues and ethnic and class differences in the incidence of disease.

Preparatory work

If you do not already have the necessary computing and internet skills, we recommend you study sections three and four of the SAFARI materials, provided by the OU Library, before you begin your study of SK123.

If you wish to improve your study skills you are advised to read The Sciences Good Study Guide (1997) by Northedge et al which can be purchased from The Open University Worldwide Ltd.  Further advice is available from the Learning with the OU website.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

If you have a disability

If you have severely impaired sight or manual dexterity you may find using the web and the multimedia resources challenging. All electronic or multimedia aspects of the study materials have been made as accessible as possible, allowing navigation through the use of keyboard and short cut keys. If you use special hardware or software we recommend that you find out whether it will work with the course resources before you register on the course. The printed course materials are available in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) as screen readable eBooks. Some components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Visit our Services for disabled students website for more information, including:

  • help to determine your study requirements and how to request the support that you need  
  • Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs)
  • using a computer for OU study
  • equipment and other support services that we offer
  • examination arrangements
  • how to contact us for advice and support both before you register and while you are studying.

Study materials

What's included

A course book and other printed materials, a DVD-ROM, a website and online forum facilities.

You will need

You will need a simple calculator.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this course. It includes online activities – you can access using a web browser – and some course software provided on disk.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer running Windows since 2007 you should have no problems completing the computer-based activities.
  • A netbook, tablet or other mobile computing device is not suitable for this course – check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you have an Apple Mac or Linux computer – please note that you can only use it for this course by running Windows on it using Boot Camp or a similar dual-boot system.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information including the details of the support we provide.

Teaching and assessment

Study support

You can email a study adviser, who will be able to help you with academic questions to do with the course and the assessment. There will also be an online discussion forum that you can use to get in touch with study advisers and other students.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this course can be found in the facts box above.

The interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs) are at roughly three week intervals throughout the course. The end-of-module assessment (EMA) must be submitted online. There will also be some formative exercises to enable you to monitor your progress throughout the course.

Future availability

The details given here are for the course that starts in January 2014 when it will be available for the last time.

How to register

We regret that we are currently unable to accept registrations for this course. Where the course is to be presented again in the future, relevant registration information will be displayed on this page as soon as it becomes available.

Student Reviews

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Distance learning

The Open University is the world’s leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you’re at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you’ll be supported throughout your studies – your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information read Distance learning explained.

Are you already an OU student ? Go to StudentHome for information on choosing your next module.
Course facts
About this course:
Course code SK123
Credits 15
OU Level 1
SCQF level 7
FHEQ level 4
Course work includes:
6 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.

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