Sarcoma Strong Learning Program Links Students and Patients, Gives Real-World Experience

In the years since he founded Sarcoma Strong, a nonprofit that supports individuals impacted by sarcoma, Matthew DiCaprio, MD, director of Orthopedic Oncology has seen interest grow in the organization’s mission and signature annual event.

Part of that support has come from students at Albany Medical College and has grown into a service-learning program that is giving students real-world experience with people impacted by this form of cancer. In the most recent academic year, 10 medical students took part in the program.

“It’s morphed into a formal program and an organized effort with students who are passionate about our efforts,” Dr. DiCaprio says.

Students also have supported the annual Sarcoma Strong 5k Run & Walk, set to be held both in-person and virtually in 2022.

Aside from awareness about the organization, students have connected with past and present sarcoma patients. Dr. DiCaprio says those connections give students the chance to learn more about the disease, patient interaction and how to use their education in real-world experiences.

Since the service-learning program began, that patient interaction has evolved to give students the opportunity to connect with two patients in different places in their diagnosis throughout their time in the program.

“My favorite moment was connecting the two patients and seeing them together and talking about their experiences,” said Gokul Kalyanasundaram, ’24, president of the Sarcoma Strong Service Learning Program.

Dr. DiCaprio refers to Kalyanasundaram’s work with developing the program as “instrumental.” He says while students are gaining experience that will help them in their future endeavors in the medical field, they are also serving as ambassadors about the mission of Sarcoma Strong.

“The students are engaged and eager to learn,” Dr. DiCaprio says. “They’re putting time, energy and effort in and gaining something valuable in the process.”

Incoming program president Madison Dwyer, ’25, became interested in the program because of previous experiences. She had worked as a chemotherapy scheduler at an oncology clinic before attending Albany Medical College. She recalls a story about her first pairing with a patient through the Sarcoma Strong service learning program.

“I was able to go to the patient’s appointment with them and was there when they learned they were cancer-free,” Dwyer says. “It was my first real-world experience here. Moving forward, I’ll always remember that.”

Dr. DiCaprio says because of the students’ efforts, they’ll expand the program to 12 students during the next academic year.