Canadian volunteers in national study do their part in fight against cancer and chronic diseases

Canadian volunteers in national study do their part in fight against cancer and chronic diseases

(Originally Published on National Post)

A new population health study has garnered the unprecedented support of Canadians from coast to coast. The Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project (CPTP) has recruited more than 300,000 volunteers to be part of a promising national research platform. Participants have agreed to have their health followed in the coming decades to help in the fight against cancer and other chronic diseases.

The volunteers for the study are between the ages of 30 and 74, and include Canadians from many different walks of life. They have offered to provide information about their health, medical history and lifestyle for the CPTP health database. More than half of the volunteers have also offered blood samples for analysis.

For some participants, the battle against cancer is deeply personal. Wayne Matthews, a retired electrician living in Fort McMurray, Alta., joined the study in 2012. Cancer has struck many of his family members, including his mother, wife and eldest son.

“I just felt it was important to me,” he says. “I don’t want to see other people lose family members. There is so much research going on, and I am hoping this project can dovetail with some of the cancer treatments to make them more effective.”

The year 2010 was particularly difficult for the Matthews family. Wayne’s son, Nathan, had a passion for skateboarding and was a talented graphic artist. When he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2009 at the age of 28, it came as a shock to family and friends. Nathan, who had proposed to his girlfriend from his Vancouver hospital bed, died in February of 2010.

“He was always helping out,” his father remembers. “He had badgered the city council in Williams Lake, B.C., to get a skate park built when he was a teenager. They ended up renaming the skate park in his memory.”

Just months later, in July 2010, Wayne’s wife of more than 30 years also passed away. Kathy Matthews was undergoing treatments for multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer.  Kathy and her son were among an estimated 75,000 Canadians who lost their lives to cancer in 2010 alone.

Today, cancer continues to be the leading cause of death in this country, taking the life of one in four Canadians. In an effort to learn more about this and other complex diseases, beginning in the 1990s several provinces launched regional population health studies that followed participants over an extended period of time. CPTP was initiated in 2008 as a collaboration between five of these regional studies in an effort build a large collection of data that are consistent and comparable across the country.

Now that the recruitment of volunteers is complete, researchers can delve deeper to address key questions around why cancer takes hold in some people and bypasses others.

Most participants in the study were recruited when they were cancer-free and have agreed to provide regular health updates for decades to come. Most have also consented to allow CPTP to access relevant information from their health records through the regional studies. Bringing together information from participants with data from their health records gives researchers a powerful tool to observe possible connections between environmental exposures, lifestyle and the development of disease.

“One of the things about these studies is they have to be very large,” says Dr. Heather Bryant, vice-president of cancer control with the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, noting that CPTP’s participants comprise about one in 50 Canadians in the target age group. “You have to have a big enough study group that you can compare, for example, people who develop colorectal cancer with people who don’t.”

Crystal Ormond of Calgary joined CPTP along with her husband in 2014. The 39-year-old emergency nurse has seen cancer take the lives of relatives. She has also witnessed friends and co-workers fight back and beat the disease.

“It seemed like a really interesting study to be part of,” she says. “I think it is important, as everyone is touched at some point by cancer. It is a diagnosis where everything just stops.”

Ormond was approached to volunteer for the project at a public flu clinic and decided to sign up. She plans to stick with CPTP and fill out new questionnaires over time as they are mailed to her. As the mother of two young boys, she hopes CPTP can help shed light on the triggers for cancer and find ways to better prevent and treat the disease in the future.

“It seems like more and more people are getting cancer,” she observes. “Are there things we are doing in our environment, or things we can change to reduce the risk? I think that would be great to figure out, why some people get cancer and others remain healthy throughout their lives.”

Wayne Matthews also sees reason for hope in this initiative and other medical breakthroughs. He has lost so much, and looks forward to a day when cancer does not leave such a devastating imprint on families and communities.

“I see articles out there about new treatments, gene therapies and targeted treatments,” he says. “I look at the progress that has been made even in the short time since 2010 and I think, yeah, we are headed in the right direction. We just need to take it all the way.”