The Behavioral and Epidemiology Research Group

Who We Are

The Behavioral and Epidemiology Research Group is dedicated to advancing science through multi-disciplinary research that informs cancer prevention and survivorship guidelines, programs, and policies for reducing the cancer burden.

Our History

In 1946, under the direction of Dr. E. Cuyler Hammond, a small research group was created at the American Cancer Society, which included epidemiology. Dr. Hammond pioneered working with the extensive network of Society volunteers nationwide to enroll and follow large numbers of U.S. men and women into cohort studies designed to provide insights into the causes of cancer. The first study, the Hammond-Horn Study, was followed from 1952 through 1955 and provided the first U.S. prospective evidence to confirm the association between cigarette smoking and death from lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and other conditions in men. The success of this early study established the foundation upon which the Society invested in a series of large prospective studies — the Cancer Prevention Studies. Over 2.7 million people have participated in these studies, which have made important contributions to our understanding of the risks of cancer and other diseases, such as those due to smoking, excess body weight, alcohol consumption, aspirin use, diet, and genetics.

In the mid 1990’s, the Society’s leadership and advisors recognized the need for behavioral and psychosocial research directed at understanding and improving the social and emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis and its treatment. While the initial focus of this research was on health outcomes and quality of life among cancer survivors, it later expanded to include changing cancer risk behaviors (including tobacco use), cancer disparities, and issues faced by caregivers. Our cancer survivor cohort studies, namely namely the Studies of Cancer Survivors (SCS) and the Cancer Survivor Transition Study, have included over 16,000 cancer survivors. This research has informed the development of clinical guidelines and recommendations for cancer survivors, and further aims to provide tailored and other behavioral interventions, including those for medically vulnerable populations, for cancer prevention.

In 2017, the epidemiology and behavioral research programs came together to form a single research team– the Behavioral and Epidemiology Research Group. Together, we leverage our collective expertise, study resources, new and emerging technologies, and multi-sector collaborations to conduct innovative and multi-disciplinary research focused on the most common or highly fatal cancers, key cancer risk factors and behaviors, outcomes after cancer diagnosis, and disparities. 

How We Keep Moving Forward

Expanding Our Resources

We go beyond collecting survey data to better understand cancer and its causes

Though our behavioral and epidemiology research began by collecting information using paper-based surveys, we now obtain information on exposures and cancer-related outcomes from many sources. We conduct interviews and focus groups with healthy study participants, cancer survivors and caregivers to better understand the health barriers they face. Several thousand participants have volunteered for unique studies that collect data from devices on exposures ranging from physical activity to ambient light exposure and sleep cycles. And hundreds of thousands of participants have donated blood and/or tumor tissue samples, which are being used to study circulating blood biomarkers, as well as genetic and tissue biomarkers of cancer.

By collecting new and different types of data — from interviews to biospecimens to wearable devices — we are better able to identify factors that impact cancer risk and survival, and to reduce disparities

Diving Deeper

We use the latest methods to reveal new insights from our data

From survey responses to tumor tissue molecular characteristics, we have an ocean’s worth of data that is ready for a deeper dive. To do so, we’re staying on top of the latest technologies in computing and statistical methodologies. Using advancements like cloud computing and machine learning, we’ve begun research on topics ranging from predicting patient prognosis based on differences in tumor tissue characteristics, to developing and testing individually tailored interventions aimed at reducing high-risk behaviors using smart-phone and other modern technologies.

By combining and analyzing our data in new and innovative ways, we can examine more risk factors in parallel, which helps us better understand why some people get cancer and others don’t–whether it’s due to genetics, behaviors and lifestyle, or the built and social environments.

Taking Action

Our research contributes to creating change that improves lives

We now understand that about 4 in 10 cancer diagnoses in the US are attributable to modifiable risk factors. Indeed, since linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer, our research has helped identify smoking as a cause of at least 12 types of cancer. This research has also contributed to what is known about the effects of other modifiable risk factors on cancer risk, such as excess body weight, alcohol consumption, poor diet, and physical inactivity, among others. And because some behavior changes are hard to make, like losing weight, being physically active, or quitting smoking, we do research to examine the barriers to behavior change and how to overcome them. We also test interventions to better understand how people can improve their lifestyles to reduce their risk of developing and dying from cancer. 

The American Cancer Society staff and volunteers work to translate research findings like these into guidelines to help Americans lower their risk of cancer. For things that may be harder for individuals to control, like secondhand smoke exposure, we partner with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) to inform policy change across the US.