National cancer study aims to reach Midwestern patients

Enrolling in NCI research can help scientists find better ways to prevent cancer

Mom pushes two kids on backyard swings on a sunny day.

Jennifer Salonen will do anything she can to fight cancer.

Salonen has never faced a diagnosis herself, but in the last six months, both her sister and her father were diagnosed.

Her sister has stage IV breast cancer, while her father was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. A little over a year ago, Salonen signed up for the National Cancer Institute’s Connect for Cancer Prevention Study (known as Connect). The study, aimed at preventing cancer, is a partnership among the NCI, which is a part of the National Institutes of Health, Sanford Health, and eight other health care providers.

“After signing up for the study, the diagnosis really hit home the importance of getting that information out there. So researchers can use that information to help potentially prevent cancer,” she said.

Not only supporting medical experts, Salonen said she feels Connect is a way to support people who may be affected by cancer in the future.

“I think if you can prevent somebody else having to hear the words ‘you have cancer,’ it’s definitely worth it,” said Salonen.

Dedicated to improving cancer care

A cancer-free world is the hope for everyone, said David Pearce, Ph.D., president for research, innovation, and world clinic at Sanford Health. Dr. Pearce said the health care provider is proud to be a tag team in the fight against cancer.

“We’re dedicated to the human condition here at Sanford, period. We have a large number of cancer patients within our footprint, and we have a reputation for providing the best cancer care. We offer more clinical trials or treatment options than anybody else in our footprint. The NCI reached out to us based on our reputation to participate in this program. They know our dedication and our expertise in treating cancer,” said Dr. Pearce.

“So, this next step in terms of identifying some of the markers and maybe ultimately preventing cancer was really a straightforward choice for them (NCI) and for us to participate in,” he added.

Mia Gaudet, Ph.D., is the chief scientist for the Connect for Cancer Prevention Study at NCI. While visiting Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she explained that when more participants enroll in the study, she and others will learn more about the causes of cancer and better ways to prevent it. Organizers of the study have a goal of enrolling 200,000 participants, across the nine health care systems recruiting for Connect.

“At Sanford Health, we expect to recruit 10,000 of those individuals. We recruit these individuals between the ages of 40 and 65 with no prior history of cancer. We ask questionnaires, collect biological samples, look at their electronic medical records. Then, we follow participants over time to see how changes in their lifestyle and behaviors are related to cancer risk later in life,” she explained.

Where you live matters to health

Another reason Sanford Health is involved is its location in rural America.

“This area has factors that aren’t prevalent in other areas of the United States, which could lead to a cancer diagnosis,” said principal investigator of Connect at Sanford Health Chun-Hung Chan, Ph.D.

For example, chemicals used in large-scale agriculture.

“They might look at farming and potential exposures to agricultural chemicals, then tie that back with where you actually live, and see whether there’s a potential that you were exposed to some sort of pesticide and if there’s maybe a link between that and developing cancer,” he said.

Gaudet said enrollment is easy. After joining the study online, participants fill out surveys every six months to one year.

“We also ask them to donate biological samples every two to three years, to provide access to their medical record and to participate in other study activities, like wearing a Fitbit or fitness monitor,” she explained.

Connect is a long-term study. Participants will share their health information with researchers for roughly 20-30 years. Researchers will study this information as they collect it into the future.

“The significance of that time frame comes from the fact that cancer develops over decades. Various aspects of our lives contribute to those cancers. It’s important to understand how that development occurs, so we can prevent those cancers as well as detect them earlier when treatment has a potential of extending years of life,” Gaudet added.

Learn more about Connect and sign up at cancer.gov/connectstudy.

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Posted In Cancer, Here for all. Here for good., Research, Rural Health