The D.C. public schools will introduce a new cancer curriculum next January that is aimed at lowering the District of Columbia's cancer death rate -- one of the highest in the United States.

In particular, the program is targeted at urban blacks, who have a much higher cancer death rate than whites.

"We think that something in the lifestyles of individuals accounts for a part of the high death rates," said Dr. Jack F. White, director of the Howard University Cancer Center, who designed the program with his staff. Explaining it to eighth-graders at Shaw Junior High School yesterday, he added, "We have thought for a number of years that there needed to be an educational program beginning as early as possible . . . rather than trying to change habits after they're formed."

Designed in cooperation with school officials and the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, the curriculum contains material for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Beginning next January, teachers will use it to teach students about their bodies, about cancer and its warning signs, and how smoking, drinking and other habits can increase the risk of cancer.

Officials hope to make the program mandatory for all public school students within the next year or two, but that timetable depends on how many teachers volunteer to use it. So far about 64 teachers from the city's 174 public schools have signed up for free workshops the cancer center is holding Nov. 15 and 22 to tell them about the program.

At this time, the program is not expected to cost the school system any money. Teaching aids will be provided by the American Cancer Society and the Howard Cancer Center has borne the cost of printing the curriculum.

Under the curriculum, children from kindergarten through third grade would be taught about the parts of the body and habits to help them stay healthy. Students in grades four through six would learn about cells and how cancer can be caused when the cells do not develop properly, as well as by environmental factors.

Seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders would be taught more about cancer's causes, warning signals and treatment. Those in grades 10-12 would learn about cancer death rates, cancer's effects on the patient and his family, and how nutrition, viruses and heredity can affect cells and promote cancer.

Throughout the curriculum, teachers would emphasize good health habits and instruct students on the dangers of smoking, alcohol and poor diet.

Science and physical education teachers would use the material in most cases, but it can be taught in other courses as well, according to James Guines, associate superintendent for instruction in the D.C. public schools. g"It is not a course in and by itself," he said. "While it definitely focuses on science . . . a social studies teacher could integrate a whole lot of this material."

He said students currently learn about health in elementary school and in eighth-grade physical education. Other health courses are offered as electives in grades nine through 12, but high school students are only required to take two years of science.

Eighth-graders at Shaw Junior High School were enthusiastic about the new curriculum.

"Sometimes you have a funny feeling like you might have cancer," said Nichelle Ridley. "Once I felt a lump and I got scared. I just want to know how you can tell when you get it and how you can prevent it."

"My grandfather had cancer of the eyes," said Tawanda Brown. "I wish they would have a health class here now."

"my doctor told me how to feel my breasts [for lumps] and I've been doing it," said Michelle Anderson. She added that she was trying to improve her parents' health habits, too. "I run and get [my mother's] cigarettes and hide 'em. My brother shoots 'em with his water gun."

White said a Howard University study of cancer death rates in 10 major metropolitan areas found the highest rate in D.C., followed by Baltimore and New Orleans. He said the commonest kinds of fatal cancer in the District of Columbia were cancer of the digestive tract, breast and prostate. d

A Howard study of cancer deaths from 1969 to 1971 found the cancer mortality rate for black men in D.C. was more than 60 percent greater than that for white men. Black women had a lower cancer death rate, and white women had the lowest rate.

Examing cancer deaths in different parts of the city, researchers found the highest mortality occurred in the central area bordered by Massachusetts and Maryland avenues on the south, Florida and New York avenues on the north, 16th Street NW on the west, and Bladensburg Road on the east. This section also has the lowest average income in the city. The second highest death rate from cancer occurred in Southeast Washington beyond the Anacostia River, the area with the highest percentage of black residents.

White said 70 percent of the difference in death rates between D.C. blacks and whites is explained by the fact that the cancer in blacks generally has progressed to a more advanced stage by the time it is diagnosed.

He believes the chief hope for changing the statistics lies in educating children before they form bad habits. "Starting off at junior high school level, it's too late," he said.