Minnesotans volunteer to crack code on cancer

The American Cancer Society held its final batch of enrollment events around the Twin Cities today, and snagged well over the 2,000 volunteers it was seeking for CPS-3, its third Cancer Prevention Study. For the next 20 years, 300,000 volunteers around the country will give cancer researchers reams of data.

Today, I enrolled.

Rhonda, the camera-shy phlebotomist, takes my blood for the cancer study. MPR Photo: Holly Guerrero

Perrie H. (the study is anonymous, and Perrie asked that I not use her last name), 60, of Roseville, said she enrolled at the request of her 49 -year-old friend Lisa who has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. “It’s an easy thing to do for her, to honor the person, the friend,” said Perrie. “I qualified for the survey, so I’m doing it. I’m one of the luckier ones,” Perrie said.

To qualify for the study, you must be between 30 and 65 years old and have no personal history of most kinds of cancer.  The exceptions are basal or squamous cell skin cancer.

Some of us will get cancer over the next 20 years. The question is who, and why.

The study begins with a giant data dump from each of us: How much did we weigh at age 18 and in each decade of our lives? How many times have we been sunburned so badly we blistered? Do we take nutritional supplements? How many cups of vegetables do we eat each day? How many hours do we sleep/sit/move?

In addition to taking a small blood sample, they measured our waists. Heather Whatley of St. Paul did a quick pirouette in the measuring tape. “I have friends who have had cancer and anything I can do to try to beat it!” she said.

Heather Whatley, 36 of St. Paul gets her waist measured for the study. MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

The first cancer prevention study in the 1950s established the link between smoking and cancer. The second one in the ’80s helped scientists theorize how obesity, lack of exercise and poor diet contributed to different cancers. CPS-3 is broader.

“It’s is a deeper dive into the environmental factors,” said Pamela Mason, CPS-3 Project Coordinator for the Midwest.  Mason stood with  her clipboard near the enrollment area at the Uptown YWCA in Minneapolis this morning.

Mason pointed out CPS-3 mines data from a different generation. CPS-2 volunteers are now 84 years old on average. “Lifestyles have changed so much,” said Mason. “How we eat, work and exercise.”

Jen Scott, 37, and Pierre-Gilles Henry, 42, of St. Paul showed up with their baby to enroll. Henry’s interest stemmed from his work as a scientist.

“And I have a history of cancer in my family,” said Scott,  “So I’m interested in how my history plays out.”

3 month old baby Oscar Henry's parents, Jen Scott and Pierre-Gilles Henry volunteered for CPS-3. MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

The East Coast region already has met its enrollment goal for the study, and Mason thinks the Midwest will be the next region to wrap up. In Minnesota, study organizers will hold more enrollment events in the Mankato area.

“It’s a shame that so many of us have been touched by [cancer],” said Mason, “But it also motivates people to come out. People care.”

And maybe some felt like I did: joining the study is my bargain with cancer to leave me alone.

My bargain with cancer: take these 4 vials of blood...and leave me alone. MPR Photo: Sasha Aslanian