Next month, local residents can volunteer to save millions of lives. All each volunteer needs to do is fill out a survey and donate five tablespoons of blood.
The American Cancer Society is launching Cancer Prevention Study-3, a 30-year research project that will rely on 300,000 U.S. volunteers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Volunteers of every race gender, ethnicity and weight are needed. There is just one requirement regarding medical history; CPS-3 needs volunteers who have never had any type of cancer other than basal or squamous cell carcinoma (types of skin cancer). On March 2 and 9, the society will be at the Covington Y between 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. hoping to recruit 200 locals for CPS-3.
Each volunteer completes a survey. A medical student measures the fully-clothed volunteer’s waist behind a privacy screen. A blood sample is taken. Each sample is assigned a number. The volunteer’s name is never on a sample to protect privacy. A medical team escorts the samples to a secure facility. Volunteers will be offered cookies, bananas, juice and the power to improve global medicine forever.
Sound too grand to be true? American Cancer Society area director Karen Lewis points to the two previous CPS projects as proof of how life-altering the research is. CPS-1 was conducted in the 1950s and established the link between smoking and an increased risk of cancer in an era when doctors appeared in ads recommending cigarettes to boost energy. CPS-2 began in the 1980s and documented links between nutrition and eating habits and cancer risks.
"CPS-2 is the study that taught us cruciferous vegetables dramatically increase certain cancer risks, the impact of healthy and unhealthy fats," Lewis said. "We’re still learning from it because it’s still on-going."
The prior CPS projects did not use blood samples. Lewis said the American Cancer Society hopes CPS-3 will help scientists develop a blood test that detects any cancer cells in the very earliest stages anywhere in the body.
"There can never be one magic silver bullet that is the cure for cancer," said Lewis, a former chemistry and physics teacher. "There are at least 25 different types of breast cancer and each behaves differently. But it is realistic to hope that cancer will become a chronic disease, like high blood pressure, that can be managed so a patient can live a long, happy, active life. The earlier a cancer is detected, the better a patient can manage it. A blood test would be a lot easier on most patients than a colonoscopy or a mammogram."
Cancer researchers hope CPS-3 will yield much more than an early detection test. Over the next three decades, CPS-3 volunteers will be asked to fill out surveys. One survey question asks if the volunteer has been diagnosed with cancer. Blood samples from volunteers diagnosed with cancer are scrutinized for commonalities and clues. And the blood of those who seem impervious to cancer will also be examined for clues to what helped protect those volunteers from the disease.
Atlanta-based scientist, Dr. Alpa Patel, is directing the nationwide CPS-3 research. She earned her master’s degree in epidemiology at Emory University and her doctoral degree in epidemiology from the University of Southern California. Her particular research interests include the links between obesity and cancer risk and the role of physical activity in cancer prevention.
"Our previous cancer prevention studies have been instrumental in helping us identify some of the major factors that can affect cancer risk. CPS-3 holds the best hope of identifying new and emerging cancer risks," Patel said when CPS-3 was announced. "And we can only do this if members of the community are willing to become involved."
Only 70 Covington residents have volunteered for CPS-3. Lewis is still hoping to hit the 200 mark with volunteers of every race and ethnicity. One mystery researchers want to solve is why different types of cancer often attack different races, ethnicities at higher or lower rates so diversity among CPS-3 volunteers is crucial.
"If you’ve ever felt helpless watching a loved one with cancer vomit after chemo or wish you could do something to ease their pain, here’s your chance," she said. "What you do as a CPS-3 volunteer is going to help future generations, even your grandchildren."