School of Health Professions

Cytotechnology students detect cancer, prevent invasive procedures

Mar 19, 2012

David Kress, Tommy Turpin and Brendan Handy study malignant cancer cells in the cytotechnology classroom

By Andi Enns

Cytotechnologists are often called cell detectives. They search for abnormalities in cells that suggest cancer or infectious disease and up to 70 percent of treatment decisions are based on what they find. This challenge is what attracted senior Brendan Handy to the cytotechnology program at University of Kansas Medical Center.


“It’s obviously never good to find cancer,” said Handy, from Topeka, Kan. “But it’s exciting to identify it.”


At most, four students are admitted each year to the School of Health Professions cytotechnology program. The class of 2012 has only three students and is the first all-male class in the history of the program.


“We’re kind of like the Marines,” said Marilee Means, Ph.D., director of the cytotechnology program and clinical associate professor. “We only need a few great men and women.”


Admitted students must have three years of undergraduate work completed, including 20 credit hours in biology, 8 credit hours in chemistry, and 3 credit hours in algebra. Most admitted students were cell biology majors before applying to the cytotechnology program.


The small class size fosters a better sense of community with classmates and professors, the students said.


“At the main campus, I was in classes of 1,500 students,” said David Kress, senior from Overland Park, Kan. “I felt like a grain of sand.”


This isn’t the case with the cytotechnology program.


“We’re on a first name basis with our professor, and she really cares that we learn,” said Tommy Turpin, senior from Gardner, Kan. “We spend more time together than anyone else in our lives. It’s like having two built-in study partners five days a week.”


The program takes place over 12 months and includes shifts working alongside certified cytotechnologists in hospitals and laboratories around the Kansas City metropolitan area.


“Cytotechnologists have direct impact on patients,” Handy said. “Pathologists will verify our work, but we have the opportunity to make real diagnoses.”


 Each week begins with lecture and sample slides in a small classroom on the ground floor of the Olathe Pavilion. After learning about the week’s topic, the students spend the week completing exercises and identifying samples, as well as going on rotation shifts in hospitals and labs.


“It’s nice for them to have the individualized attention,” Means said. “There are so many opportunities to practice in different environments, it’s very interactive.”


The students experience identifying a variety of cell abnormalities, Handy said, and learning to successfully identify a new one is exciting.


“My favorite was identifying an intracranial dysgerminoma, which is a tumor in the brain,” said Turpin.


Once a month, the cytotechnology students gather with pathology residents and fellows, cytotechnologists, and the cytotechnology medical director to test their knowledge of cell abnormalities. Facilitators present case studies with limited patient histories and show slides of the cells. Then, each attendee makes a preliminary diagnosis before learning the real outcome. They don’t use stains – or special medical ink that chemically reacts with cells – to help with their diagnosis, like they would have in a real lab.


“We had one where the sample cells looked like melanoma,” Turpin said. “Without having the stains to identify it, even the pathologists thought it was a skin cancer sample. Turns out, it was acinic cell carcinoma of the salivary gland.”


Means said the monthly conferences provide opportunities for interprofessional learning.


“Everyone there is learning,” Means said. “It helps the students understand there is always more to learn.”


Means said cytotechnologist professionals and students thrive on doing something new each day.


“Every slide is different,” Means said. “It’s like an Easter egg hunt. You’re looking for something that stands out as abnormal.”


This never-ending hunt means students must have attention to detail and patience to find the abnormalities.


“You have to be able to detect nuances,” Kress said. “And not get tired of looking through a microscope all day.”


Means said students must learn delicate medical procedures, such as evaluating the adequacy of a fine needle aspiration to gather a mass of cells for sampling – in lay terms, the students must know if the procedure gathered enough cells for the lab. Fine needle aspirations are used to prevent potentially unnecessary invasive procedures, such as surgical biopsies.  


“They have to learn to diagnose on the spot, so they know if they have enough of a sample to work with,” Means said. “If something abnormal is on the first slide, they can ask the radiologist to collect more specimens immediately.”


She said these procedures are revolutionizing cancer treatment, because cytotechnologists can collect enough specimens to determine how the cells will respond to various treatments.


“Cancer treatment is becoming much more personalized,” Means said. “We’re matching abnormal cells with the chemotherapy that will best target them.”


It’s this aspect of cytotechnology that keeps these three students motivated and dedicated, even as they attend 40 hours a week of classes and rotations while their friends at on other campuses are experiencing more traditional senior years.


“It’s nice to know you’re making a real difference,” Kress said. “We’re making life or death decisions here. And it’s saving lives.”   

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