Spotlight on Nutrition and Physical Activity Grantees

Following are some of the nutrition and physical activity investigators currently funded through research grants by the American Cancer Society. They're working to find the answers that will save more lives and better prevent, treat, and manage cancer.

Could Playing Video Games Motivate Breast Cancer Survivors to Exercise?

Grantee: Elizabeth Lyons, PhD
Institution: University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston
Research Area: Cancer Control and Prevention: Psychosocial and Behavioral Research
Grant Term: 1/1/2015 to 12/31/2020

The Challenge: Regular exercise improves quality of life for postmenopausal breast cancer survivors and can help lower the chance of cancer coming back. But many of these women aren’t getting enough exercise. Studies have shown that behavior-change programs, activity trackers, and mobile apps can help people get more exercise, but using these tools doesn’t seem to help them keep it up over time.

The Research: Elizabeth, Lyons, PhD, MPH, is investigating whether role-playing video games will both persuade people to exercise more and to keep doing it longer. Role-playing video games have a storyline that allow players to see themselves as an active character. These games have been shown to lead to narrative transportation, which means using a story, or narrative, to increase enjoyment during exercise.

As part of a clinical trial, Lyons and her team separated 90 postmenopausal, sedentary, overweight breast cancer survivors into 2 groups. Both groups received an iPod, an activity monitor, and short phone counseling for 6 months. One group also received 2 story-based role-playing video games on the iPod.

Lyons wants to see whether the women who use the role-playing video games will exercise more and be physically healthier as well as have a higher quality of life, than those who don’t play the video games.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: Finding ways to improve women’s motivation to exercise has the potential to greatly improve the health of breast cancer survivors in different ways — and could eventually help all women. 

Exploring How Food Choices Influence the Risk for Colon Cancer

Grantee: Paulette Chandler, MD, MPH
Institution: Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston 
Research Area: Carcinogenesis, Nutrition and the Environment
Grant Term: 7/1/2015 to 6/30/2020

The Challenge: What you eat may affect your risk for developing cancer. As one example, eating a traditional Western diet — a lot of red meat, processed foods, and sugary desserts — increases the risk for developing colorectal cancer. But researchers don’t know exactly what happens in the body when you eat a Western diet and how that might increase the risk for cancer. 

The Research: Paulette Chandler, MD, MPH, thinks that certain metabolites from eating a Western diet may increase the risk of colon and rectal cancers. Metabolites are substances made when the body breaks down, or metabolizes, food and drugs. She and her team are studying data from the Women’s Health Study.

Chandler and her team are looking for the unique “fingerprint” of metabolites that link them to either a Western or to a Mediterranean diet. Unlike a Western diet, a Mediterranean diet focuses on whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetables, and fruit and is linked to a lower risk of colon and rectal cancer.

Basically, Chandler is hoping to show that it’s the way the body breaks down foods from a Western diet that raises the risk of colorectal cancer, while the way the body breaks down foods from a Mediterranean diet can lower the risk. Chandler is also studying whether obesity and lack of exercise change the body’s level of these diet-related metabolites. 

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: Chandler’s goal is to have information that will allow doctors to give people specific and personal actions that can help prevent colon and rectal cancers. The actions may involve changing what and how they eat, as well as how often they get screened for colorectal cancer.   

To learn more about Dr. Chandler's work, see: You Aren't What You Eat— You're What You Metabolize

Are There Racial Differences in How Physical Activity Affects Breast Cancer Survival?

Grantee: Cher Dallal, PhD
Institution: University of Maryland, College Park
Area of Research: Cancer Control and Prevention: Psychosocial and Behavioral Research
Grant Term: 1/1/17 to 12/31/21

The Challenge: Research shows that Black women and white women are diagnosed with breast cancer at about the same rate. Yet, more Black women die from the disease. Research also shows that how long women live after a diagnosis with breast cancer is linked to how much time they spend being both physically active and sitting (being sedentary).

So far, though, there isn’t much information about the physical status (physiology) of white women after treatment for breast cancer to know why they have higher survival rates. Nor is there much known about how getting regular physical activity affects breast cancer survival. 

The Research: Cher Dallal, PhD, and her research team are trying to learn more. They’re studying postmenopausal breast cancer survivors who have completed treatment and who are wearing an activity monitor to track their activity behavior and levels. At the same time, they’ll have blood samples taken to see the effect that activity—or lack of it—has on physiology.

Dallal’s study group includes Black and white breast cancer survivors. What they expect to find is that there are racial differences in how activity level affects physiology.

To understand the physiology, the team is using the newer field of metabolomics, which looks at the substances produced when the body breaks down food, drugs, and hormones—called metabolites. 

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: Dallal’s work may help explain some differences in breast cancer survival.  It may also stimulate more research, which may ultimately help Black women with breast cancer live longer. 

From Our Researchers

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who relentlessly pursue the
answers that help us understand the relationship between healthy eating
and active living and cancer. 

Studying the Influence of Better Diet After Diagnosis for Colorectal Cancer

Investigator: Mark A. Guinter, PhD, MPH
Institution: American Cancer Society, Intramural Research Department
Area of Research: Epidemiology

The Challenge: Research shows a strong link between a person’s diet and their risk for developing colorectal cancer. But there hasn’t been consistent research about the effect of diet after a diagnosis of colorectal cancer.

The Research: A recent ACS study was one of the first to focus on colorectal cancer survivors’ risk of dying based on how well they ate before and after their diagnosis. Mark Guinter, PhD, MPH, an American Cancer Society (ACS) post-doctoral fellow, was the lead author.

He and his team used data from 2,801 men and women with colorectal cancer from the ACS Cancer Prevention Study-II (CPS-II) Nutrition Study. Those who reported a diet that followed the ACS Guidelines for Nutrition for Cancer Prevention had a lower risk of death from their cancer — even if their diet was unhealthy before diagnosis. The ACS nutrition guidelines recommend eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and limit or avoid red and processed meats, sugary drinks, and highly processed foods. 

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: The findings suggest that colorectal cancer survivors may be able to live longer by eating a healthy diet. Doctors and other health care providers may use this evidence to let colorectal cancer survivors know that it’s not too late to improve how they eat.