Cancer study yields hard facts

Ten years ago a Red Deer couple were among the first few thousand people to sign up for one of the largest medical research studies Alberta has ever conducted.

Dr. Paula Robson and Count Me In For Tomorrow participant Pat Klein talk at the Cancer Centre in the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre on Thursday.

Dr. Paula Robson and Count Me In For Tomorrow participant Pat Klein talk at the Cancer Centre in the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre on Thursday.

Ten years ago a Red Deer couple were among the first few thousand people to sign up for one of the largest medical research studies Alberta has ever conducted.

Now more than 10 years later Pat Klein has regretfully come to understand the cancer study’s significance in his own life.

Klein and his wife Dorothea were part of The Tomorrow Project in 2001.

“I’m in quite deep myself, my wife is a cancer survivor and was cancer-free when we started study … and now it’s back,” an emotional Klein said at the Central Alberta Cancer Centre in Red Deer, Thursday afternoon.

Dorothea Klein’s initial cancer diagnoses, five years ago, is unfortunately a daily occurrence in Central Alberta — 1,965 people in the region developed cancer in 2009 (latest available statistics) and 846 died from the disease.

“We know that one in two Albertans will develop cancer in their lifetime, and we also know that one in four will die as a result of cancer, that’s pretty scary,” said Dr. Paula Robson, the principal investigator for The Tomorrow Project.

“To understand how to prevent it, we need to know what causes it.”

By the spring of 2012 The Tomorrow Project will reach its target of enrolling 50,000 cancer-free Albertans between the ages of 35 to 69, Robson said.

The intention of the study is to collect detailed information on participants’ life-styles, diets, careers and physical environments and then correlate the large volumes of data to better understand what is causing cancer in Albertans.

“For a long time we thought cancer was just genetic, but now we’re starting to understand it’s a combination of genetic factors and environment,” said Robson.

Cases like Dorothea Klein’s will be compared with other study participants who didn’t develop cancer along the same time-line, to see if environmental factors — such as diet, career field, where the participant lives, as well as genetic history — raise the likelihood of developing certain types of cancer.

The study also asks participants to give a small blood and urine sample (or if they don’t want to do that, a saliva sample) to store at two permanent lab facilities in Calgary and Edmonton.

The samples will be analyzed and combined with the statistical information, and the ongoing study could start to turn out live-saving preventative information in 10 to 15 years, Robson said.

“Participation is always voluntary, but we’re asking for people to stay with us for up to 50 years,” Robson said.

“That seems like a really long time, but this is a really complex issue.”

After the initial consent forum and questionnaire are filled out, and samples are given, participants will be mailed an information package to fill out every couple years to keep data and statistics current as the study evolves, Robson said.

Participants can also consent to have their information combined with data from other provinces in Canada (conducting similar research).

The Canadian data may one day be combined with other national studies — such as the UK Biobank in the United Kingdom which has over 100,000 people currently participating — possibly creating a ground-breaking global cancer study, Robson said.

Nearly 17,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer in Alberta this year, and for Dr. Robson, the intention of The Tomorrow Project is to see that number drop drastically.

“While the treatment is getting better and people with cancer are living longer, it’d be much better to never hear: ‘I’m sorry, but you’ve got cancer,’ ” she said.

A temporary study centre for The Tomorrow Project will be set up at the Red Deer Festival Hall (4214 58 St.), from Monday, June 20 to Thursday June 23. Spaces are limited for the temporary study centre, and will be booked on a first-in, first-served basis.

Those wishing to participate are encouraged to book appointments in advance.

For more information or to join the study visit and complete the online forum or call 1-877-919-9292. More than 1,200 Red Deer-area residents have participated in an earlier phase of the study.

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