It's Cancer Research Month and We’ve Got a Lot to Be Excited About

May is Cancer Research Month, a time to focus on the importance of investing in cancer research and to highlight the innovative work that researchers are doing. American Cancer Society researchers – and the researchers we fund at institutions throughout the United States – are working on a wide variety of exciting projects that have the potential to influence cancer prevention, early detection, treatment, and survivorship. Below are just some of the projects that our researchers are most excited about.

close-up portrait of Susan M. Gapstur, PhD, MPH - Vice President, Epidemiology Research Program
Coffee, Sleep, and Obesity: Understanding the Cancer Connection

Susan Gapstur, Ph.D., M.P.H., Vice President of Epidemiology
Area of focus: Epidemiology

What I am excited about: As the Vice President of Epidemiology, I provide strategic oversight of all research activities in the American Cancer Society’s Epidemiology Research Program, which is focused on large, nationwide prospective studies to help us better understand cancer. One of these studies is called Cancer Prevention Study II. I am the principal investigator of CPS-II, and my research focuses primarily on the role of lifestyle and medical factors such as alcohol consumption, obesity, and diabetes in relation to cancer risk. I am leading a study of coffee consumption in relation to total and cancer-specific mortality. This study is based on data collected in 1982 from the 1.2 million CPS-II study participants who we have followed for cause of death through 2012 and will be the largest single study conducted to date on the topic.

My team is also conducting a study to test a new survey we want to conduct about how sleep and light at night may connect to cancer. If the new survey questions provide reliable and accurate information about sleep and exposure to light at night, then we will include those questions in a follow-up survey that will go to participants in our new Cancer Prevention Study-3. This research expands on recent findings from CPS-II, which suggest that short sleep duration might be associated with an elevated risk of prostate cancer mortality.

Finally, I am working with my team on a new initiative to understand the influence of obesity and energy balance-related factors on cancer risk in the elderly. The topic of cancer in the elderly is of increasing importance because the elderly are at the highest risk of developing cancer and because the elderly population in the U.S. will double by the year 2050. CPS-II is an exceptionally good resource to help examine questions about what causes cancer and ways to prevent it in the elderly.

close-up portrait of Kerem Shuval, PhD - Director of Physical Activity & Nutrition Research, Economic & Health Policy Research Program
Figuring Out How to “Nudge” People Towards Healthy Choices

Kerem Shuval, Ph.D., Senior Investigator
Area of focus: Economics and Health Policy Research

What I am excited about: I am focused on studying why some individuals maintain healthy lifestyles while others do not, and providing real-life strategies to assist individuals in attaining their goals. I am excited about this work because we know that exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet benefit all. More specifically, recent research has found that regular physical activity can reduce breast and colon cancer risk by as much as 30%. Most Americans, however, are unable to maintain an active lifestyle consisting of a least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (or a combination) per week.

My research draws on behavioral economics, which applies cognitive psychology to economics. It aims to identify biases that influence a person’s decision making and to suggest intervention and policy approaches to “nudge” people towards engaging in healthful behaviors that reduce cancer risk. One issue people face is called “present-time bias,” an inherent preference for immediate satisfaction over future benefits. When applying this concept to physical activity, exercising involves a sacrifice of free time, while far-off benefits (cancer prevention) are abstract. Intangible, deferred benefits don't spark enthusiasm in people who have a strong present-time bias. Behavioral economists suggest that making exercise more convenient (such as “built in” activity breaks in the workplace) as well as providing timely incentives or rewards, will facilitate behavior change.

Pre-commitment contracts, which are self-imposed constraints on future choices, are a feasible way to overcome present-time bias. For example, a sum of money is deposited prior to beginning a weight-loss program, and if the predetermined goals are not met, the money will be lost or given to a charity. This concept has been applied successfully to weight-loss interventions. I am taking these types of insights from behavioral economics into consideration in my work and plan to examine how they can be used to modify health behavior and reduce cancer risk.

close up portrait of Lee Westmaas, PhD
Getting Cancer Survivors Who Smoke to Stop

J. Lee Westmaas, Ph.D., Director, Tobacco Research
Area of focus: Behavioral Research

What I am excited about: I’m most excited about my work focused on understanding the best strategies for getting cancer survivors to quit smoking. Research we’ve conducted has shown that approximately 9% of cancer survivors are still smoking 9 years after their diagnosis. Many of them have likely tried quitting, but because quitting a tobacco addiction can be very difficult, and because health care providers often don’t have the time, or know how to help survivors quit, we lose an important opportunity, the time of diagnosis, to provide cessation help.

Our research is also investigating psychological reasons why some survivors smoke because these findings can inform quitting interventions for this population. For example, our research has found that survivors who say they intend to quit (vs. those not intending or unsure) are more likely to perceive greater risks of smoking to their cancer prognosis, more severe health effects from smoking, fewer benefits of smoking, and greater social pressure to quit. Whether a survivor is exposed to other people who smoke is also a big factor in predicting whether they were still smoking or not.

I’m also excited about learning what methods survivors would be interested in using to help them quit. This year we’ll be investigating discussion threads on the American Cancer Society’s online community Cancer Survivors Network about quitting smoking, and using that and other information to determine what we recommend or provide to survivors to help them quit. I’m particularly excited about the possibility of using new methods that have high reach and that engage users, such as e-mail, social media or text-messaging programs. Ultimately, the goal is to make cessation interventions more appealing and accessible to all cancer patients or survivors.

close-up portrait of Charles Saxe, PhD - Director, Cancer Cell Biology and Metastasis Program
Learning More About How Cancer Cells Spread

Charles Saxe, Ph.D., Extramural Grants Program Director
Area of focus: Cancer Cell Biology and Metastasis

What I am excited about: Research in the area of metastasis has recently provided surprises and renewed hope for blocking this most deadly aspect of cancer progression. The American Cancer Society is funding a number of researchers who are focused on cancer metastasis. Using genetic models like fruit flies and mice plus extremely high-resolution microscopy, researchers, including several American Cancer Society-funded researchers, have found that the majority of metastatic cells move as groups, not as individual cells. Scientists are working to identify the cellular signals that coordinate those collective movements. Some are signals for which drugs are already available and represent near-term targets for treatment. Other signals are new and provide opportunities for new strategies for blocking tumor metastasis.

A second area of excitement comes from recent discoveries about what it takes to stimulate the immune system to attack a tumor. The triggers, in part, come from cells and molecules that are present surrounding the tumor, the so called tumor microenvironment (tme). Several American Cancer Society-funded researchers are working toward a deeper understanding of the role(s) of the tme, which will lead to more effective immunotherapy treatments.

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