just weeks after going to the doctor with a
“Cancer sometimes just doesn’t make
any sense,” Smith says. “It can ravage one
family and other families just don’t see the
disease. And I wonder why.”
So do researchers.
Despite making huge strides in understanding cancer over the decades, much
is still unknown about the disease that
will kill about 6,200 Albertans this year.
Exactly what mix of behavioural, environmental and other factors can cause cancer?
Smith is hoping she can be a small part
of answering that enormous question.
She has signed up to be a part of the
Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow
Project, a massive, long-term national
study exploring the causes of cancer and
other chronic diseases.
The study aims to recruit and track
the health, medical history and lifestyle
of 300,000 people — 50,000 of them in Alberta. Participants have to be between 35
and 69 years old and never had cancer;
all information they volunteer will be
In addition to answering questions
about everything from how many fruits
and vegetables they eat to how often
they work in the yard, researchers
measure participants’ blood pressure,
grip strength, height, weight, waist and
People taking part in the study can also
volunteer to have blood, urine and saliva
samples collected. These will be stored
at -80˚C until such time, years or decades
from now, that researchers may want to
analyze them for nutrients, hormones and
infectious or environmental agents.
Researchers in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic
provinces will follow the participants
for several decades, checking in every
few years with a new questionnaire and
keeping an eye on their health through
electronic medical records.
“This is a very exciting study,” says Dr.
Christine Friedenreich, the acting principal
investigator for the Tomorrow Project in
Alberta. It’s the first study of its kind to
Why these studies matter
What we know about medicine and health has been, and
continues to be, shaped by group studies like the Tomorrow
Project. These large, long-term studies that follow a group of
people over several years, even decades, have had a pivotal
effect on health care policy and prevention programs around
the world. Here are just a few examples:
The Framingham Heart Study (FHS) started in 1948 with
an original group of 5,209 men and women between the
ages of 30 and 62 who lived in the town of Framingham,
Since then, the study has added several new groups; one
of the original group’s children, one of their grandchildren,
as well as others that represent the growing ethnic diversity
of the town.
The FHS has helped identify major risk factors of
cardiovascular disease, as well as how these factors affect
blood pressure, blood triglyceride and cholesterol levels, age,
gender and psychosocial issues. The study is also investigating risk factors for dementia and other conditions.
The Million Women Study in the United Kingdom is
exploring how lifestyle and reproductive factors affect the
health of women aged 50 and over. researchers recruited
participants between 1996 and 2001 by inviting them to
attend a breast screening.
While the study has a specific focus on the effects of
hormone replacement therapy, the huge sample size means
researchers can look at a wide variety of health issues,
including: diet, exercise, employment patterns, use of oral
contraceptives, childbirth, breastfeeding and how family
histories affect a wide range of cancers, cardiovascular
disease and other conditions.
The MoST FAMouS:
The British Doctors Study, which began in 1951, was one
of the first studies that showed there was increased risk of
developing a disease associated with a particular lifestyle
exposure by demonstrating smoking increased the risk of
developing lung cancer and other chronic diseases.
researchers wrote every registered male doctor in the
United Kingdom to ask them to participate, and two thirds,
or nearly 35,000, agreed. The doctors were sorted by age,
general health and smoking habits. They were asked to fill
out questionnaires in 1957, 1966, 1971, 1978, 1991 and,
finally, in 2001.
Widely considered a huge success story of epidemiology,
the British Doctors Study concluded that smoking decreases
life span up to 10 years, and that more than half of all smokers die of a disease related to smoking.