When Alpa Patel's grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, he seemed healthy: The 64-year-old had been training for a triathlon when doctors found a lemon-size tumor in his brain. He died almost a year to the day from when he was diagnosed.
Patel, only a teenager at the time in
She became an epidemiologist and is now the principal investigator — and one of the participants — in the
To take part in the study, a person must be 30 to 65 and never have had cancer. Participants fill out comprehensive surveys about their health and habits and give blood samples and waist measurements. Researchers will track participants' progress over the years, sending short follow-up surveys every two years or so that can be filled out at home in about 15 to 20 minutes.
The American Cancer Society has already enrolled 200,000 people and hopes to find 100,000 more people nationwide; enrollment in Chicago's western suburbs began Thursday and runs until April 26. Enrollment will take place in Springfield in May, in Chicago's north suburbs in June and in Chicago in August.
When the cancer society started tracking cancer-free participants in its first study in the 1950s, a cancer diagnosis was "like a death sentence," Patel said. But that study, by following participants over the years, established the link between smoking and
Findings from the second study, which started in the 1980s, helped link obesity with increased cancer risk.
That's one area upon which researchers are hoping to expand with new data from today's participants, whose health will be tracked for at least the next 20 years, Patel said.
"We haven't really studied people who have been very heavy their entire lives, which wasn't the case in previous generations," said Lauren Teras, an epidemiologist at the cancer society.
Teras, 36, who has enrolled in the study along with several of her cancer-free family members, also intends to focus on what happens to people living in a more sedentary society.
"More people are in their cars, in front of an
That research question wasn't the point of focus in generations past, when Frances Kent's parents took part in the first study in the 1950s. Kent, 62, of the North Shore, said her parents "were always active physically."
Both have since passed away, but Kent's mother never had cancer. She died at 85 simply of "old age, didn't have any particular disease," Kent said. Her father had
"They always watched things that we know now are not so good for us — salt, they didn't eat red meat. They kept their diet simpler, like vegetables, rice, grains and nuts," Kent said.
But Kent's oldest sister passed away at 47 of
"I think it's so important to participate because it gives (the researchers) patterns," Kent said. "It gives them information to press for a cure."