When Diana Martin’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer, his physicians gave him some simple advice: Take a vacation.
Cancer was usually a death sentence in the late 1960s. He was told to enjoy the last six months of his life and wait for the disease to run its course.
“That was what you heard for the most part,” recalled Martin, a Niskayuna resident and regional vice president of the American Cancer Society.
But that was more than four decades ago. Today, about two of every three people diagnosed with cancer survive the disease for five years or longer.
Modern research has led to advances that have drastically prolonged the lives of people with cancer. Generational studies conducted since the 1950s and involving millions of participants have played a major part in understanding both cancer prevention and cancer risk — from identifying secondhand smoke as a cause for the disease to advocating aspirin as drug that may help prevent certain types.
“We can see the day when it will be three out of three,” Martin said.
Researchers are now appealing to Schenectady County residents to help elevate cancer research to the next level. Men and women 30 to 65 who have never been diagnosed with cancer are being asked to participate in a massive study that will track a diverse population of as many as 300,000 people across the nation.
Known as Cancer Prevention Study-3, the research is aimed at gaining a better understanding of the lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors that cause or prevent cancer. After record-setting enrollment in Albany last fall, the study is now recruiting participants living in Schenectady County.
Enrolling in the program requires volunteers to fill out a questionnaire, get a waist measurement and have a blood sample drawn at Ellis Hospital or MVP Healthcare in mid-June. Participants will then be asked to answer a short questionnaire mailed to them every year and a half.
“We are just getting in on the tail end [of the study], but we’re going to be part of history,” Martin said.
The study is open to anyone in the Capital Region. Martin said having intake centers in Schenectady should ensure a broad cross-section of participants from throughout the county.
Schenectady County averaged roughly 475 cases of cancer diagnosed in men and 457 in women annually between 2005 and 2009, according to statistics provided by the state Department of Health. Over that same period, cancer caused an average of 186 male deaths and 165 female deaths throughout the county.
The county’s incidence rate of cancer in males is slightly lower than the upstate average, but slightly higher for females. Conversely, the county’s mortality rate for cancer cases in men was significantly higher than the upstate average, but slightly lower for women.
The American Cancer Society has already enlisted about 300 volunteers since opening enrollment to employees from MVP and Ellis Medicine. Among the participants is James Connolly, president and chief executive officer of Ellis, who watched a favorite aunt die of breast cancer and his father from prostate cancer.
“You and I can do something tangible that researchers need to help them fight cancer,” he said. “That is unbelievably inspiring.”
Dr. Brian Gordon, chairman of the Schenectady County Legislature’s Public Health Committee, lauded the effort as one aimed at taking a proactive approach toward medicine. He said data generated from the study will inevitably help future physicians combat and possibly even conquer cancer.
“These long-term studies are what the physicians of the future are going to be looking at, as they help not only prevent but find a cure for cancer,” he said.