Major cancer-prevention study needs thousands of volunteers

When Berkeley, Calif., resident Polly Pagenhart heard the American Cancer Society was looking for volunteers to participate in a long-term study to better understand the causes of cancer, she didn't hesitate to sign up.

Pagenhart, who has lost her mother, aunt and 10-year-old nephew to different forms of cancer, said nothing, aside from love, has affected her family more, and she wanted to do everything she could to help researchers find a way to prevent it.

"Participating in large-scale studies like this is a critical tool in the battle against cancer," said Pagenhart, 50, as she filled out a questionnaire at a Berkeley church that served as an enrollment site for the study. "There's so little that we, who are not research scientists, can do. You can participate in a walk or give money once in a while, but this is really specific, concrete."

The American Cancer Society is seeking to sign up 300,000 people across the country to participate in the third iteration of its Cancer Prevention Study. Two earlier such studies conducted decades ago led to remarkable findings that have had lasting impact on research and medical advances.

The first study, done in the 1950s, helped establish the link between smoking and cancer. The second study, which began in the early 1980s and is ongoing, found a link between obesity and the risk of several cancers.

This third version, which is in its sixth and final year of recruitment, focuses on lifestyle, behavioral, environmental and genetic factors that may either cause or prevent cancer. Volunteers are required to fill out two detailed questionnaires -- some duplication is required for accuracy -- and to be willing to complete follow-up surveys in the years to come.

This year's study also, for the first time, requires participants to donate a blood sample. The sample does not provide immediate information but will be stored and analyzed only if the volunteer develops cancer.

"Participants are selfless," said Bronwyn Hogan, spokeswoman for the California division of the American Cancer Society. "This is not something they will benefit from. They are doing this for future generations." 

Volunteers must be between 30 and 65 years old and have never have been diagnosed with cancer, with the exception of basal and squamous cell skin cancer. 

As an epidemiologist, Miranda Worthen, 34, of Berkeley, said she felt it was important for her to put her career into practice and to help future generations. 

"This is the most powerful tool we as a society have -- when you have all these people willing to be studied for years and years," she said.

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(Victoria Colliver is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: and Twitter: (at)vcolliver. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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